The game is eight hours away, and already they are on him like
mousse. Jaromir Jagr takes a seat in the corner of the Pittsburgh
Penguin dressing room, still breathing hard from the morning
skate, and the cameras and microphones converge as if he had just
been traded to the O.J. defense team. The right wing from Kladno
in the Czech Republic smiles and answers all the questions, even
the ones he doesn't quite understand.
When the crowd finally disperses, Jagr turns and pops a question
of his own. He is the leading scorer in the NHL, and the best
player on the best team in hockey. A lot of million-dollar
adjectives have been used to describe his performance this season,
but one word, he insists, keeps tripping him up. He is a bright
guy, but his English is still not perfect. He needs help, or maybe
he just wants us to think he does.
``You have to explain something to me,'' Jagr says, with no trace
of a smirk. ``What is mature? I don't know that word. Everyone
talks about it. What's that supposed to mean -- mature?''
Well, around the NHL these days, mature is English for ``Jagr.''
The Penguins' hip young prodigy has blossomed into a superstar in
the first half of this shortened season, stepping into the void
that Mario Lemieux left when he took a medical leave of absence
for '95 and lifting the Penguins to a surprising 15-4-2 start. In
his first four seasons Jagr never scored 40 goals or 100 points,
but at week's end he had 16 goals and 17 assists. In a normal
84-game season those numbers would project to 58 and 62. Everyone
from Prague to Pittsburgh knew he had the ability, and now, at the
age of 23, fresh from his previous role as understudy to his idol
Lemieux, Jagr is proving himself to be a very capable leading man.
``I think he looks around now and says, `Hey, Mario's gone, maybe
this is my show now,' '' says teammate John Cullen. ``I think he's
really enjoying himself.''
No mystery there. He is obscenely rich, rock-star handsome and
more popular in Pittsburgh than Iron City on tap. He has the body
of a boxer-shorts model, hair that Julia Louis-Dreyfus would die
for and a new five-year, $19.5 million contract. He just bought a
house in a South Hills suburb, where he lives with his mother,
Anna. He has always had his fun and put up great numbers, but now
he is doing it on the ice instead of in the video arcade. ``He
just has much more of a sense of responsibility this year,'' says
Penguin coach Ed Johnston. ``He has slowed the pace of his life
down, and now he's become more focused on what's important.''
Now, you could say, he is more mature, even if he might not
``Getting there -- is that what it means?'' Jagr says. ``Well, I
think you could say that about me. It's true. I've changed a lot
in the last couple of years. I'm getting there.''
Jagr (pronounced YAH-ger, but known to most of his teammates as
Yaggs) was not surprised when he heard Lemieux would be sitting
out the season. Lemieux played just 22 games in '93-94 and almost
never practiced. He was being treated for Hodgkin's disease and
suffering from severe back pain, and a grueling NHL season was not
the recommended method of rehabilitation. ``I couldn't believe he
played at all last year,'' says Jagr. ``He was in so much pain.''
After losing the best player in their history, the Penguins
somehow got better. They went through their first 13 games without
a loss, two short of the NHL record for a season's best start. On
Feb. 22 they won a wild 5-4 showdown at home against the Quebec
Nordiques, who at week's end were in second place behind
Pittsburgh in the Northeast Division. Jagr scored the game-winner
with a blind backhander from the left circle while wearing Quebec
center Bob Bassen like a shawl. It was a goal very few mortals
could score. Maybe just Mario and Jaromir, which, as Penguin and
anagram fans like to say, is just another way to spell Mario Jr.
``They've got different styles, but Jagr does remind you of Mario
in a lot of ways,'' says Penguin wing Kevin Stevens, who is
sidelined with a fractured left ankle. ``He's got the same kind of
presence on the ice.''
``When you're sitting on the bench, it's just like it was with
Mario,'' says Cullen. ``You watch. You can't help. You know Yaggs
can get the puck and just take over the game. You don't want to
Jagr might be, among other things, the best one-armed player in
the game today. The trend in the NHL toward more clutching and
grabbing may slow down some slick-skating Europeans, but not Jagr,
who is 6'2" and 208 pounds. He actually seems to enjoy the
challenge of handling the puck while carrying a couple of
passengers. ``He should practice with a 100-pound dummy strapped
to his back,'' says Penguin center Shawn McEachern, ``because
that's the way he has to play in the games.''
Johnston has increased Jagr's ice time this season by putting him
on the first power-play unit and allowing him to kill penalties.
According to the coach, people are missing something when they
attribute all of Jagr's success to his size and natural abilities.
There is a pretty good mind under all that hair, says Johnston.
``He knows the game better than anyone on the team,'' says the
coach. ``He's very smart out there. He knows the little things,
things you can't teach. He knows how to play the angles and how to
protect the puck. You know where he got that, don't you?''
From his brilliant coaches on the Penguins?
Jagr says there were times when he would look across the dressing
room at number 66, and in his mind he would bow down like Wayne
and Garth. I'm not worthy! He was 13 when he first saw Lemieux,
who was playing in the world championships in Prague. Jagr says he
was in awe of him then, and he was in awe of him when they played
``It was very tough for me to play with Mario,'' says Jagr. ``You
know, sometimes you just have so much respect for a guy and you
look up to him so much that you can't believe you're really
playing with him. Every student needs a teacher, and he was my
Jagr learned a lot of things from Lemieux, but he says the most
important lesson was that there are worse things in life than a
loss. He says he used to be a wreck for days after he played a
lousy game, and he became almost as renowned for his sulking as
for his stickhandling. Sometimes he would refuse to speak to the
media, claiming his English was not good enough. He would often
take out his frustration on a video game or, worse, in the fast
lane of Interstate 279. Jagr's heavy foot is legendary in
Pittsburgh, and there are tales of the time he broke the sound
barrier on the way home from the airport.
When he had contract problems with the Penguins, he demanded to be
traded ``where there's beaches.'' He didn't care if he was sent to
a losing organization. ``I don't need more rings,'' he said after
his sophomore season, in which the Penguins won their second
consecutive Stanley Cup. ``I just need money and beaches and
girls.'' You don't need to run a Nexis check to know that no one
used the word mature to describe him back then.
These days Jagr is doing his best to destroy the image of an
untamed rock-and-roll rebel on ice. He insists he kicked his
video-game addiction, and he recently traded in his sports car for
a four-wheel drive vehicle. ``Better in the snow,'' he says,
smiling. He has a girlfriend in the Pittsburgh area, but he vows
to keep her name out of the papers. When he turned 21, a local
nightclub threw a huge party for Jagr, and a radio station carried
the bash live on the air. Three weeks ago he quietly turned 23. He
doesn't plan to cut his hair, but neither does he intend to let it
down much anymore. The new attitude has transferred nicely to the
ice. Teammate Joey Mullen says, ``He kind of broke out of that
``When I was 18 I thought hockey was all that mattered,'' Jagr
says. ``But no more. Now I know how important life is. Hockey is
still great and a lot of fun and a great job, but it's not
everything in life. I used to think, If I play a bad game, my life
is over. Now I realize that if I play a bad game, well, so what?
Life is still good.''
Would he still like to be traded to a city with beaches? ``Why
would I want beaches?'' he says. ``They're too hot.''
When Jagr started off so strong this season, a lot of people just
assumed he showed up in better shape than everyone else. Not true,
he says, ``I was in the worst shape ever.'' He played 10 games in
the professional league in the Czech Republic and another five in
Italy, but he went home to Kladno for Christmas and didn't skate
again until he reported to Pittsburgh at the end of the lockout.
As always, he crossed the Atlantic with mixed feelings. Despite
his success in the U.S., Jagr has been unable to shake his
homesickness. He wears number 68 to commemorate the Prague Spring
uprising of 1968, and when he talks of his country, he sounds like
a kid away at camp.
``Most people have friends but no money,'' he says. ``I have the
opposite. I don't have a chance to talk to my real friends, the
ones I've had since I was five years old. Sometimes I wish I could
bring Czechoslovakia to America. Then I would be the happiest guy
in the world.''
Jagr is a hero in his home country, but, surprisingly, he says
it's easier for him to walk the streets there and be himself. In
the Czech Republic, the free market system does not include
autographs of hockey stars, and Jagr hopes it never does.
``It's not like America,'' he says. ``People are more shy there.
They respect your privacy. They don't run up and ask for
autographs everywhere you go. It's not the normal people who
bother you in America. It's the seekers. They don't want one
autograph. They want a million.''
Jagr was the last player out of the dressing room after beating
Quebec with that backhander a couple of weeks ago. In the game he
took a stick in the mouth and another in the ribs, and as he
walked out of the building, he moved as if his shoes were full of
broken glass. It was 11:30 p.m. and painfully cold when he left
the arena and heard the screams. A crowd of 50 frozen fans
surrounded him, shoving sticks and pucks and pictures toward him.
At least a dozen were wearing number 68 jerseys. He stayed for 15
minutes and signed for everyone, including the seekers.
It seems Jagr has learned to accept one small fact of life in the
U.S.: Someone will always be in his face. As long as he is the
leading man, someone will always want a piece of him. It comes
with the job. Ask Mario.
``I love this game, and I wish I could play forever,'' says Jagr.
``But I know it's impossible. I won't be young, and I won't be
healthy. I know I'll have to quit. I know it can't be like this
True, but Jagr's still young, still learning, still maturing.
Tough break for the rest of the league. It might be like this for
quite a while.