Jaromir Jagr’s locker area in the Rangers’ practice facility in Tarrytown, New York, about 25 miles north of Madison Square Garden, was actually a corner space of three wooden stalls. The big right wing from the Czech Republic could spread out.
On one of the shelves was a small Catholic icon; on another, a biography of Alfred Einstein given to him by a reporter. One day after practice, as Jagr was untying his skates, another reporter asked what he had learned from the book.
He looked up with a sly grin. “That everything’s relative.”
When he arrived in New York from Washington in a trade for Anson Carter, the veteran winger was in great shape, with a heavy shot and the ability to shield the puck with his 6’3”, 245-pound frame. He was serious about the game, and his sense of history dovetailed with his sense of humor.
After a vibrant run in Pittsburgh that included two Cups and five Art Ross Trophies, tension had prevailed in Washington. There was more comfort here. There was a Czech contingent on the club: Martin Straka, Martin Rucinsky, Marek Malik, Michael Rozsival, Petr Sykora, rookie Petr Prucha, and one of his foils, Lithuanian-born Darius Kasparaitis.
In 2006, head coach Tom Renney brought the team to a training camp for a bonding weekend at the United States Military Academy in West Point, which provided plenty of fodder for the players.
Dan Girardi confided he almost drowned during one of the nighttime exercises, which involved carrying a player on a stretcher across mud and a river in nearby Fort Smith.
“I'm mean, I’m fairly strong and there were a few of us,” said Girardi, “but Jags was so heavy, a few of us were lifting him in muddy water up to our necks, can’t see where we’re going, and he’s giving directions.”
Another time after practice, Kasparaitis, who was offensively limited, bounded into the dressing room from the weight area wearing a camouflage t-shirt and brandishing a submachine gun from the trip toward a group of writers, who quickly began dispersing.
“Don’t worry,” Jagr chortled. “Haven’t you seen him shoot the puck? Even if he pulled the trigger, he’d miss.”
No. 68 didn’t miss much, especially in 2005–06, the first of his three seasons in New York, when he broke two major team scoring records—Adam Graves’ 52 goals in a season, set in 1993–94, and Jean Ratelle’s points total of 109 (1971–72).
As importantly, at 32, he led a surprise run to the playoffs with a team that hadn’t sniffed the postseason in seven consecutive years.
A dominant Jagr, playing with slick Swedish center Michal Nylander, the Czechs, plus a rookie goalie named Henrik Lundqvist, drove the Rangers to 100 points for the first time since the 1993–94 championship season, fulfilling Jagr’s preseason prediction that the Blueshirts would surprise a lot of people.
With Jagr’s 10 goals in fewer than 10 games to begin the season, pundits took notice and the consistent Rangers finished with a 44–26–12 record.
By March, records had started to fall. A power play goal lifted Jagr to 1,400 points and second place among all European-born players; he eventually passed Stan Mikita.
Against the Maple Leafs on March 18, he hit 100 points, the first Rangers right wing to accomplish that. Eleven days later, he passed Ratelle’s mark, assisting on Prucha’s goal against the Islanders.
Then on April 8, against the Bruins’ Tim Thomas, he scored his 53rd goal on a snap shot from the left circle in the first period, eclipsing Graves’ single-season record, and added two assists in a 4–3 overtime win.
“It’s a little bit of a relief. I don’t think it’s just for me; it’s for my linemates,” he said. “I think they feel the pressure too and sometimes they’re giving me the puck too much. Maybe they should shoot it and I go for the rebound, but now we can just play hockey.”
After 82 games, Jagr finished with 123 points, 54 goals, and 24 power play goals, second in the NHL in all three categories. He finished third in assists, with 69. He also set the franchise record for shots on goal, with 368.
Jagr finished two points shy of Joe Thornton for the Ross Trophy but picked up his third Lester B. Pearson award as the most valuable player as chosen by the players.
“It’s a special year for a lot of reasons,” Renney said. “Jaromir’s just had a tremendous year and has helped us all grow and mature as a team.”
But in the first playoff game against the Devils, Jagr dislocated his shoulder in the third period, which affected him for the remaining games, and the Devils swept the Blueshirts in four games. He had surgery afterward.
In October 2006, Jagr was named as the Rangers’ 24th captain, and scored on his first shift, foreshadowing another solid season in which he scored his 600th goal, 1,500th point, and 30-plus goals in 15 consecutive seasons, tying Mike Gartner’s NHL record.
For the second straight season, the Rangers reached the playoffs and swept the Atlanta Thrashers before losing to the Buffalo Sabres in six games in the Eastern Conference semifinals. Jagr had 11 points in the 10 games.
In his third year on Broadway, Jagr again played all 82 games, and the Rangers returned to the playoffs. Though Jagr finished with 25 goals and 71 points, he turned it up in the postseason, with five goals and 10 assists in 10 games against the Devils and Penguins before the Rangers were ousted.
Had Jagr reached 84 points or won a major NHL award, his expiring contract would have been extended automatically for one year. The Rangers, Oilers, and Penguins all offered one-year deals, but at 35, Jagr decided to head to Russia, where he played for Avangard Omsk, for more money.
With the Blueshirts, he amassed 319 points (124–195) in 277 games. “I’m thankful for the three years I had in New York,” Jagr said. “They were great years. I understand that I’m older and the team decided to go in a different direction because they couldn’t get the deal done.”
In the end, Jagr’s presence and professionalism were critical for young players such as Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan, Girardi, and Marc Staal, who all came up during Jagr’s run in Manhattan.
After three years for Avangard, Jagr returned to the NHL to play for the Flyers, Stars, Bruins, Devils, Panthers, and, finally, the Flames for 22 games, before he returned to the Czech Republic. Amazingly, he was 45.
This excerpt from The Big 50: New York Rangers, by Steve Zipay, is presented with permission from Triumph Books. For more information and to order a copy, please visit www.triumphbooks.com/big50rangers.