Jaromir Jagr had a special request for Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren when he signed in Philadelphia as a free agent in July. No problem, Holmgren figured. Even after a three-year hiatus in Russia, Jagr was still the NHL's active scoring leader by more than 250 points, so the 39-year-old Czech had earned the right to some preferential treatment. But what would he want? A leased car? A block of rinkside tickets at the Wells Fargo Center? Two-for-one cheesesteaks at Pat's? Nope. Just a key, please. Jagr needed access to the team's practice facility in Voorhees, N.J., so that he could pop in at night for some extra work whenever the mood struck. He might shoot with a weighted stick to keep his wrists in shape, or skate with a weighted vest to keep his legs in shape, or kick around a soccer ball while he recharged between drills. "Because when it's really fun for me," Jagr explains, "it doesn't even feel like work. Practice, games, whatever. I don't see the hours pass, you know. I'm just playing."
This is an article from the Oct. 24, 2011 issue
His Philly teammates have already begun to trickle into Voorhees at night for classes—or is it recess?—at what grizzled left wing Jody Shelley admiringly calls the Jagr Hockey School. "He loves hockey more than any guy in the room," says Shelley, a 10-year NHL veteran and one of Jagr's first enrollees. "Some guys want to go out, some read books, some watch movies. He just wants to be on the ice. He's really different than I thought he'd be, just a great guy to be around for every single one of us."
Through a 3--2 overtime loss at home to the Kings last Saturday, the Flyers have opened 3-0-1, picked up seven of a possible eight points and put everyone in the East on notice they they're again a contender for the Stanley Cup. Jagr, playing on the top line alongside center Claude Giroux and left wing James van Riemsdyk, had assists in three of the four games while adding an element of danger to the Philly power play. In the first period against Los Angeles, he held the puck deep in the offensive zone near the goal line, drew two defenders, then fed center Danny Bri√®re at the opposite corner of the net for an easy tap-in. The Flyers appear to have found in Jagr both what they expected—a desperately needed gust of skill for a depleted attack—and what they could have never guessed: a source of joyful purpose in what had been a damaged locker room.
There were few reasons for Philadelphia to think that Jagr could play a significant off-ice role. In his previous NHL incarnation, he was the mullet-haired kid from Kladno who drove too fast (his license was suspended briefly in 2001 for too many speeding tickets), bet too much (a decade ago he owed more than $500,000 to an Internet gambling company) and was spoiled by early success (a pair of Cups in his first two seasons with the Penguins as a teenage sidekick to Mario Lemieux). "You think every year will be like that," Jagr says, sitting on a bench in the practice facility's dressing room.
He was one of the most decorated players in the NHL during his 17 brilliant seasons, from 1990 to 2008—winning a Hart Trophy and five scoring titles, and earning seven first-team All-Star selections—but was never able to get back to the Stanley Cup finals. Jagr advanced past the second round of the playoffs just once in his last 10 NHL seasons, a stretch that included extended stints with the Capitals and the Rangers. And when his teams came up short, the brunt of the fans' disappointment usually fell on the superstar who sometimes moped, didn't backcheck, wouldn't use his 6'3", 240-pound frame to bodycheck and had an uneasy relationship with the press. "[His] last three or four years [in the league]," says Flyers captain Chris Pronger, "it looked like he was checking in and checking out."
"Some people said, 'He doesn't smile,'" Jagr says. "[But] to some people, you laugh too much [and it's] like you're not serious. It's a different country, different language, different humor. You are who you are."
Jagr spent his final three-plus NHL seasons in New York, setting franchise records with 54 goals and 123 points in 2005--06, and scoring 15 points in 10 playoff games in 2008. But he felt the Rangers could have done more to bolster the club around him, and he resented the way they dragged their feet during contract talks in '07--08.
During the NHL lockout of 2004--05, Jagr had played 32 games with Avangard in the Siberian city of Omsk. Avangard was offering him a two-year, $14 million contract with an option for a third year, and the money was also close to tax-free. The Rangers and the Penguins, meanwhile, were offering one-year deals for comparable money, while the Oilers submitted a one-year deal at $8 million. By terms of the NHL's labor agreement, any player 35 or over who signs a multiyear agreement counts against the team's salary cap for the length of his contract, even if he retires before the deal ends, which is why older players usually sign for only a year at a time. But Jagr felt his performance and conditioning had earned the longer commitment he could find only in Omsk.
So on July 4, 2008, he abandoned North America for life in the KHL. Dostoyevsky had once been exiled to Omsk; now Jagr was doing it to himself. "It wasn't only money," he says of his decision. "Maybe I was looking for something. Russia changed me. Not much pressure. Not many distractions. Not many rules. I could follow my own, and I took them seriously."
In his self-imposed isolation, Jagr rededicated himself to his game. On off days, he would come home from practice at 2 p.m., take a nap, wake up without setting an alarm or looking at a watch and then drive back to the rink in the evening. "Sometimes there would be teammates, sometimes just some kids," he recalls. "We'd get on the ice, then play some soccer in the hallway, some basketball, then more ice, like you do when you're a kid. It was a great workout, but it was really fun too. And it was only seven minutes away. There was no traffic in winter because most people couldn't start their cars in the cold."
Jagr also began living for something more than just himself, embracing both his political and spiritual sides. He became a vocal supporter of the Civic Democratic Party, the leading conservative political organization in the Czech Republic, and sometimes visited with an Orthodox Christian priest who used to stop by the Avangard dressing room before games. One game in particular, in October 2008, prompted Jagr to reexamine his priorites. He was chatting on the bench with teammate Alexei Cherepanov, when, without warning, the 19-year-old right wing went into cardiac arrest at Jagr's side, dying a few hours later of an inflamed heart muscle. "It makes you think your time should be special," Jagr says.
When his contract with Omsk was up, Jagr decided to make one last run at a Stanley Cup. The Penguins were the apparent front-runners. But his early conversations with club management, including one with team owner Lemieux, didn't impress him. "I thought the fans wanted me," Jagr says, "but I didn't know if the Penguins wanted me. I didn't want to be on the third and fourth line playing seven, eight minutes; I wanted to make a difference."
For the older, wiser Jagr, Philadelphia was a perfect landing spot. The Flyers' internal tensions dated back to the summer of 2009, when Holmgren commented publicly about the need for his club to be more disciplined off the ice—a subtle swipe at his players' partying ways. After Peter Laviolette was hired as coach in December '09, he wanted his players to temporarily make the team a Dry Island, asking them to sign a pledge to abstain from drinking. Both leading goal scorer Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards were among those who did not sign, and an uneasy détente prevailed.
The Flyers rallied to reach the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, but last season their flaws began to show: They had invested in a roster deep in capable forwards but had scrimped on goaltenders. Philly's goalies had a whopping 3.33 GAA and an abysmal .889 save percentage in the 2011 postseason, and Laviolette had to pull his starter in the first three games of a second-round sweep by the Bruins.
On June 23 Holmgren signed Ilya Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy finalist two seasons ago with the Coyotes, for nine years and $51 million. To pare salary, he unloaded both Carter ($5.27 million per year) and Richards ($5.75 million per year) on the same day and let forward Ville Leino walk as a free agent. To make up for the 78 goals the Flyers lost, Holmgren acquired a couple of good young forwards from L.A. for Richards—Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds—and signed Jagr to a bargain one-year deal for $3.3 million. "His size and patience give him so many options," says Pronger. "He's a great passer on the perimeter, and if he goes to the net with a step, you can't stop him. You can try to take his passing lane or his shooting lane, but there's no way you can take both." Adds Laviolette, "Our power play has a presence now. He opens things up for everyone else."
He has also become an acknowledged leader. "I really enjoy teaching the kids," says Jagr, and Van Riemsdyk, his 22-year-old linemate, has surveyed some of his evening classes. "He always puts the guy chasing him at the wrong angle," Van Riemsdyk says. "If he's close, he hunches forward and keeps his body down so you can never reach his arms or stick. He gives you the biggest obstacle to the puck before you even get to him. If you're coming from greater distance, he leans so [your momentum forces you to] roll off him."
It doesn't hurt that Jagr doesn't drink. His description of drunken friends criticizing other drunken friends sends him into fits of laughter. He is obviously comfortable setting a more sober tone in the dressing room. "They love him here," says Joe Mullen, a Flyers assistant and former Pittsburgh teammate. "Sometimes you have to step away from a place to find out how much it means to you."
Honeymoons die fast in Philadelphia, where the Flyers have lost in all six of their trips to the finals since the franchise's last Stanley Cup, in 1975. Ask Mike Schmidt, Donovan McNabb and Allen Iverson how fast the warm fuzzies can fade. Jagr never played more than 55 games during the shortened Russian schedule, and it will be hard for him not to wear down at his advanced age. But he insists that he is not concerned. He plans to finish his career one day with Kladno, the Czech team he also owns. "I'll play until 50," he says, "first in the Czech B League, then C League, then I'll make up my own league. As long as I can play on some rink, I'll be smiling."