- The Washington Times - Friday, October 5, 2001

In a survey conducted last year, 19 of 26 NHL coaches who responded called Jaromir Jagr the best hockey player in the world.

When the Washington Capitals essentially stole Jagr from the Pittsburgh Penguins in July, owner Ted Leonsis announced that anyone who doesn't believe that Washington, D.C., is a hockey town should now believe otherwise. Two weeks ago, Caps goalie Olaf Kolzig referred to Jagr as a "savior, so to speak," and all 82 games were put on television for the first time.

Jagr, a seven-time All-Star and the 1999 most valuable player, is one of that rare breed of athlete who can instantly transform a good team into a great one, or at least a genuine Stanley Cup contender. A big man at 6-2, 235 pounds, he looms much larger, bringing to the Capitals a knockout scoring punch and box-office star power comparable to that of Michael Jordan. There is one difference, though. Jordan is 38, and no matter how well he plays for the Wizards, his best games are history. At 29, Jagr is in his prime.

Yet with all that going for him, not to mention a contract worth more than $20 million over the next two years, Jagr needs your help. That's right, you, the excited, hopeful, Cup-starved fans, and the players, too, for that matter. What Jaromir Jagr said he needs from all of you is a little patience.

"I know it's gonna be tough for me," he said. "I know that. I know a lot of people are waiting to see what I'm gonna do, but I've just got to relax and don't worry about it. As soon as I get comfortable, it'll get better for me. We're not gonna play the playoffs in the first 10 games."

After 11 seasons with the Penguins, the team with which he started out as an 18-year-old, Jagr is living in a different place, wearing a different uniform, getting familiar with different teammates and learning a different system. "I'm kind of lost right now," he said during the first week of practice.

But it goes beyond the sheer newness of everything. Although he tries to downplay it somewhat, last season was a hellish one for the Czech native, who led his country to a gold medal in the 1996 Olympics. He was unhappy in Pittsburgh and asked openly to be traded. He argued with his coach, Ivan Hlinka. He hurt his shoulder and needed pain-killing injections during the postseason. When the Penguins were eliminated in the Eastern Conference finals by the Devils after defeating the Caps and Sabres, Jagr's play was criticized by Pens owner and fellow superstar Mario Lemieux, Jagr's past mentor and idol. It also was suggested that after Lemieux's near-miraculous return after sitting out three seasons, Jagr wasn't happy with losing his role as the No. 1 guy.

There also was turmoil off the ice. Jagr lost his driver's license after racking up one too many speeding tickets. He reportedly lost millions in a sour investment and there were Jordanesque rumors of big gambling losses (The New York Post reported an Atlantic City casino gave Jagr a $500,000 line of credit at a private baccarat table). At one point during a slump, he was quoted as saying, "I'm dying alive."

Portrayed as brash, even arrogant, during most of his career, this was a new Jagr. He moped, he sulked, he was late for practices and meetings. And now, having had his wish granted (although he believed he was headed to the Rangers), it seems Jagr's confidence has taken a hit. He sounds like he needs a big hug.

"Last year wasn't that good," he said. "And you start questioning yourself. And now it's a change, and it's gonna take me awhile. But hopefully I'll be the same player I was before, or maybe better. But I can promise you one thing. I'll give you 100 percent. Maybe 100 percent's not gonna work. You don't know. But I'm ready for it."

Caps coach Ron Wilson said, "We sensed there was something wrong with him last year, at times. He didn't dominate games against us like he did. But from what we've seen so far, here's a guy who has come to training camp and worked very hard with his teammates and worked very hard behind the scenes. And that's what impresses me. He's a very driven athlete, someone determined to be the best player in the world again."

Maybe an ordinary player would let his mood affect his productivity, but Jagr is far from ordinary. His offensive skills are so refined, his mixture of power, speed and creativity so unique that despite the distractions and difficulties, the right winger still had 52 goals and 69 assists to lead the NHL in points for the fifth time, the fourth in succession. In their 27 years, the Capitals have never had a scoring leader.

Jagr can't help being good, even when his heart or head isn't always in it. That the Caps only had to give up a trio of 20-year-old 1999 draft picks plus about $5 million in cash for Jagr and defenseman Frantisek Kucera makes the trade even more remarkable. From Leonsis on down to the guy who sharpens the sticks, the Caps can't believe their good fortune.

Wilson is among those who for years have considered Jagr the best, a position that has since been reinforced. Jagr and the Penguins have bounced the Caps from the playoffs six times since 1991, including the last two years under Wilson.

"The year before [2000], he was a one-man wrecking crew," Wilson said. "We had things in place to try and stop him, but it seemed impossible." Kolzig, who knows the difficulty of stopping Jagr better than most, amended the "savior" comment, but pretty much stands by it.

"That's what we got him for," he said. "Obviously, that's a lot of pressure on his shoulders, but wherever he goes he's gonna have a lot of pressure. It's awesome to have him on our team.

"We've got a legitimate superstar who can win games fo0r us singlehandedly. I don't think one player can be a savior. In order for us to be successful, we've got to play the same way we have the last two years. But he's gonna be the difference."

The platitudes for Jagr come from everywhere, even from those with whom he has had differences. "He's incredibly dynamic on the ice, incredibly dynamic to his team's cause, he has incredible offensive gifts," said Kevin Constantine, whom Jagr supposedly helped get fired in December 1999 after 21/2 mostly successful years as Penguins coach.

Even though he exceeded 100 points in each of his two full seasons under Constantine, Jagr was frustrated with Constantine's defense-oriented system and reportedly helped orchestrate his dismissal. Asked about that, Constantine at first flatly denied that was the case. "I coached the team for two and a half years," he said. "So if you take a hockey season that lasts eight months, that's 240 days you're around the team. Add that up, that's about 600 days. And Jaromir and I probably had about five days where we strongly disagreed."

But later, Constantine seemed to modify his opinion.

Was Jaromir's happiness or unhappiness a portion of the decision? "I don't know the answer," Constantine said. "I would guess yes. But I don't think it's a predominant part of the formula."

Jagr has always insisted he had nothing to do with Constantine's fate and publicly has said only kind things about him.

The "side effect" of Jagr's greatness "is that he's highly opinionated and he has his own thoughts on how the game should be played," Constantine said. "That's why, on occasion and not in an epidemic way, he's gonna want to express that view. Both of our personalities were such that when we disagreed, we disagreed strongly."

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Joe Starkey wrote that Jagr drove Constantine's replacement, Herb Brooks, "up a wall," even though Brooks' philosophy was partly based on Jagr getting the puck as often as possible. Last year, Jagr argued frequently with Pens coach Ivan Hlinka, another Czech and coach of the gold medal-winning Olympic team whose hiring partly was based on the fact that he presumably could relate with Jagr. It was reported that Jagr twice during games refused to take the ice for a shift, which Jagr and Hlinka both denied.

"I think 'moody' would probably be a fair adjective," Constantine said. "But his fun moods and the way he enjoyed the game and the way he enjoyed being around the guys was extraordinary.

"I think you have to give Jaromir some freedom within your structure to do what he enjoys doing. But when his behavior gets detrimental to the team, you have to assume some responsibility and fix that."

No one, however, is as familiar with Jagr's personality as Jagr.

"I know I'm different," he said. "I know it's not easy to deal with me. I'm not saying it's easy. I may drive a lot of people crazy."

He laughed and said, "I've been a troublemaker since I was 10 years old."

But he quickly adds, "I love all the guys around me. I love people. I love to have fun."

Jagr said he gets his rebellious spirit from his heritage his grandfather's land was stolen by the Communists and he was put in jail and from his father. "He's lucky he's got my mother," Jagr said, laughing again. "I don't think somebody else would be able to stay with him."

Most of all, Jagr seems to suffer from the curse common to superstars, which also explains their greatness: Being the best often isn't enough.

"Maybe I get too frustrated when things don't go right," he said, then paused. "My personal goals are too high sometimes. I put too much pressure on me. I want to reach my best."

As much as he liked Pittsburgh, Jagr said he wanted to spare the financially troubled franchise (which Lemieux had to rescue from bankruptcy in 1999 by buying it) from having to choose between keeping him and his large contract and freeing up the resources to sign other players.

"They wouldn't be able to sign the other guys and it wouldn't be a good team," he said. "And if they didn't sign them, and something would go wrong, the fans would say, 'They had a chance to trade Jagr. It's his fault.' If I would have played the best hockey I could play and the team wasn't winning, they'd say, 'They should have signed those other guys.' It would have been tough for management. There was a decision to make. Sign me, or sign the other guys and trade me."

Jagr, who won Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992, his first two seasons in the league, but none since, said the team had gone about as far as it could go with him. "It wouldn't have worked anymore," he said.

Relieved of Jagr's salary and boosted by the $5 million from the Caps, Penguins general manager Craig Patrick was able to re-sign such key free agents as Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang, and pick up a few from other teams. Patrick would not respond to telephone messages.

At the time of the trade, there was speculation Jagr would not be entirely comfortable with Wilson's adherence to defense. Jagr said he needs to play in a system that allows the forwards to quickly get the puck, and then control it. "When you've got the puck, keep the puck," he said. "Don't just try to get to the red line and dump it in. It's a lot easier to play hockey with the puck."

Wilson strongly dispels the perception that his is a tightly wound, conservative system that inhibits creativity on offense. Look, he said, at Peter Bondra, who has scored 52 and 45 goals in his two healthy seasons under Wilson. And if you want to look further back, Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne weren't exactly skating in leg irons when Wilson coached at Anaheim. Like most coaches, Wilson believes that defense wins championships, and he will never stray from that. But other than Bondra and maybe one or two others, the Caps, who were 13th in goals last year, have not had a plethora of gifted offensive players.

"We're not asking Jaromir Jagr to come here and play defense," Wilson said. "We are asking people to maintain a sound defensive commitment. Our strength has always been our defense. But we're asking Jaromir to add to our offensive capabilities.

"He'll be the focal point, rather than a Peter Bondra or an Olie Kolzig. He's the type of player who relishes that role. He's willing to assume the mantle of leadership."

Said Kolzig, "I don't think the coaches can restrict his freedom. When he's out there, some guys will have to pick it up defensively. Wilson's always said he doesn't really want to play this style, but for the type of team we have, it suits us. Now [Jagr] has made us a more skillful hockey team, I think Wilson's gonna let some guys be a little more creative. We'll still concentrate on defense, but we'll get that creativity from the blue line on in."

Jagr said he is not familiar with the phrase "change of scenery," but by all accounts it seems that's exactly what he needed. "I believe this is the best thing that could have happened to Jaromir," veteran hockey author and journalist Stan Fischler said. "He's getting away from Mario Lemieux. I felt that the return of Lemieux had a negative effect on Jaromir, whether he'll admit it or not. He's at his best when he's the top banana. He's a virtuoso."

"For whatever reason, he wasn't happy last year," Kolzig said. "But we've got a good group of guys. I think he's gonna feel comfortable, and we'll make him feel at home and let him just play hockey. From what I've seen, he loves to play hockey. Last year was the first time I heard he was a selfish player and all that, and I think it was just time to move on.

"Sometimes things get said about you, but everybody had an open mind when he came here, and we're just gonna accept him for what he is. And that's one of the greatest players in the world and a guy that could bring us a long way in the playoffs."

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