- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 29, 2004

NEW YORK — It was a familiar scene: Jaromir Jagr skating along and chatting with Robert Lang, who stood a few strides away. Only this time, Jagr wore the red, white and blue togs of the New York Rangers. Lang was on the other side of the boards, wearing his usual Washington Capitals colors.

Last week Jagr and Lang were teammates on the Caps. Yesterday morning Jagr was preparing to battle his former mates.

Of course, Jagr, always one to go his own way, couldn’t perform drills like every other Ranger. He finished the pregame skate by removing his helmet and firing puck after puck on net off passes from Alex Kovalev, who, like Lang, was Jagr’s teammate in their days with the Penguins.

“I was kind of ready [for the trade], but I wasn’t really ready,” Jagr said. “I had one suit and one T-shirt with me. The first thing I had to do was to move some of my stuff in New York. When I have the time, I’m going look for an apartment. The guys here have been just awesome. I haven’t had to worry about much. They said, ‘Let us do it. Just play hockey.’”

Caps owner Ted Leonsis thought he was lifting his team from contender to champion when he acquired Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champion, from the cash-strapped Pittsburgh Penguins for three prospects and future considerations on July11, 2001.

Then-coach Ron Wilson tried to get the free-flowing Jagr to adapt to his disciplined system, but the star’s production dropped from 121 to 79 points, the team missed the playoffs and Wilson was fired.

Last season coach Bruce Cassidy took a less structured approach. But Jagr was even less of a force, and the Caps blew a 2-0 series lead and lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs.

The trade rumors that began after that debacle never really let up this season.

The Caps started slowly as usual but, unusually, have never righted themselves. Jagr produced 10 goals and 19 assists in a 19-game stretch, but the team went 7-11-0-1 and Cassidy was fired Dec.10. Jagr’s tenure lasted only 50 more days.

The Jagr trade incensed Caps season ticket-holder Jason Hammer, who got into a altercation with Leonsis after Sunday’s 4-1 loss to Philadelphia at MCI Center.

“Ted’s frustrated, the fan is frustrated, I understand that,” Jagr said. “But nobody should be mad at Ted in Washington. Ted is such a nice guy. He’s the nicest owner I ever met. He did a lot for hockey in Washington. It didn’t work the way he wanted.

“He was the guy who wanted me to come to Washington. Maybe he was the only one,” Jagr said with a smile.

Jagr blamed no one for the way things worked out in Washington.

“I look back and maybe the team should do something differently. Maybe I should do something differently. But nobody’s perfect. No one knew how it would work out. They thought they would get me and everything would be easy. It was a lot harder than they thought.”

The Caps posted an 84-82-21-10 record with Jagr, who scored 208 points in 197 games (including the playoffs). Jagr was traded because Leonsis couldn’t afford his $11million salary on a team that wasn’t competitive and in a league headed for a work stoppage.

Jagr’s arrival to the Rangers did not prevent a 9-1 loss to the Senators in Ottawa, but he scored a goal and had two assists skating alongside Eric Lindros in his first home game Monday, a 5-2 victory over the Florida Panthers.

Jagr is thrilled to be skating with the powerful Lindros, and the feeling is mutual.

“I didn’t know what to expect [from the New York fans] after we lost the first game 9-1,” said Jagr, who became the Big Apple’s latest darling as Monday’s game progressed. “It wasn’t pretty. But those kind of games happen. I remember my first game in Washington. We beat [Stanley Cup finalist] New Jersey 6-1, and look at what happened after that.”

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