- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 11, 2008

The Washington Capitals in December will retire the No. 11 of Hall of Famer Mike Gartner and hang it from the Verizon Center rafters.

On Saturday night, the Capitals play their home opener at the Verizon Center, and they will hold no such ceremony to retire No. 68.

But you had better believe that the number of Jaromir Jagr still hangs over this franchise - particularly in a season such as this with high expectations.

The legacy of Jagr - the $77 million disappointment who came to Washington in a trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins the summer of 2001 to so much fanfare - is simply this:

Never forget.

Never forget how excited fans were when Jagr arrived.

Never forget the pride of supposedly having one of the best players in the league in a Capitals uniform.

Never forget the talk of competing for a Stanley Cup.

Never forget the disaster it all turned out to be - the Caps missed the playoffs in 2002 and were knocked out by Tampa Bay in 2003.

No one is suggesting the current version of the Capitals is anything like that personality-cursed Caps team of the Jagr era. The young, enthusiastic Alexander Ovechkin Capitals appear to be just the opposite.

But those who lived through the high expectations of the Jagr years get a little nervous when these young Capitals are anointed the hot team to beat in the NHL.

While the Capitals practiced on the Verizon Center ice one morning this week, general manager George McPhee sat in the stands and, responding to a question about the expectations for this team, recalled the high hopes when Jagr arrived.

A few minutes later, owner Ted Leonsis brought up Jagr as well.

“We sold a lot of tickets and there was a lot of media hype, and we didn’t make the playoffs,” Leonsis said. “I’ve reminded people of that. Nothing is handed to them. You are not destined to win.”

Ovechkin is no Jagr, and we mean that in a good way. He works hard and plays hard. He is admired and beloved by his teammates. He is by all accounts well grounded. He is not plagued by the demons away from the ice that made Jagr such a negative influence.

The grounding force, though, for Ovechkin and these young players is their coach, Mr. Everyman, Bruce Boudreau.

“We are fortunate that our coach reminds them we have proven you have talent,” Leonsis said. “But you haven’t accomplished anything, because we haven’t.”

Boudreau wasn’t around for the Jagr collapse, and he isn’t particularly interested in any comparisons between then and now.

“That was a different time and place,” Boudreau said. “The expectations were high and probably not met in anyone’s mind. But we are a new younger, hungrier group, and hopefully we can meet the expectations that we’ve set, let alone others.

“These players really like each other. They hang out with each other. Seven of them played in Hershey together and won a championship together. They’ve grown up together. Then you have the young guys like Ovechkin and [Nicklas] Backstrom, and they fit in with the other guys. You don’t know what you are getting personality-wise when you trade for some guys. We have a lot of passionate people who love to do the same thing, and it shows on the ice.”

Maybe that is what the difference is between then and now. There was excitement and anticipation when Jagr arrived. Passion, however, is something that is grown. You don’t trade for it. It happens when a team and a fan base grow together.

Yes, the expectations will be high at the Verizon Center Saturday night for the home opener. The passion will be, too.

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