Friday, May 20, 2011

Jágr's still got it

Risto Pakarinen

When Jaromír Jágr made his Czechoslovak League debut, one of his teammates was Milan Nový, then 36-year-old forward, a key player on the Czechoslovak team that won back-to-back World Championships in 1976 and 1977. Nový had returned to Kladno a few years earlier after a stint in Switzerland and Austria, and had helped bring the famous club back to the top division, before retiring after that year with Jágr in 1989.

If it feels like Jaromír Jágr has always been around, it’s simply because he started young. He played his first World Championship in Switzerland in 1990 as an 18-year-old, and in September 1991, he was on Czechoslovakia’s Canada Cup team – as a Stanley Cup winner with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

At the 2011 World Championship, he proved that he’s still got it, averaging a point a game and winning his fourth World Championship medal in his eighth tournament. He’s played six of his World Championship tournaments since 2002. Last year, he was considered the grand old man of the team that was lacking the biggest Czech stars, as he collected seven points en route to his second World Championship gold. The first one came in 2005.

"Last year, we showed that we can win even if we don't have our best players. This year, the NHL players came, too, and the team attitude was still there. This was a great group of guys. Too bad we played against a Swedish team who just didn't make any mistakes," Jágr said after the bronze medal game.

The Czechs were 7-0 before the semi-final, and suffered their only loss of the tournament at a critical moment.

“Sweden played their best game of the tournament and that day we just didn’t have a chance. Our line didn’t score goals, it wasn’t our night, and it was perfect for them,” he said.

The Czechs looked strong all the way to their loss. They had great goaltending in Ondřej Pavelec, they had a great, playmaking defence, and up front they had three excellent offensive lines, each one stepping up at different occasions. Jágr’s line – with Tomáš Plekanec and Roman Červenka – scored all four goals in the team’s quarterfinal game against the U.S., and four in the crazy 7-4 bronze medal game against Russia.

“It was an open game and we knew you can’t play like that against Russia. You don’t want to play up-and-down hockey, you have to play down low, in their zone and make those forwards play defense,” Jágr said about the bronze medal game.

But, such is hockey. Even a great team can come up short because, as the saying goes, anything can happen in one hockey game.

“I think we played our best hockey in a long time. We played so well for 6-7 games, and then, all of a sudden it was 1-1 [in the semi-final] and we started to panic, like, changing lines. (Coach Adam Hadamczik) tried to do something, and it didn’t work out,” Jágr said.

“It depends on how you look at it. Some people say that they want to take the gold and they don’t see the good hockey, others say they want to enjoy good hockey, regardless of the score. We won the gold last year, in this tournament, we played good hockey,” said Jágr, philosophically.

Nine points in nine games, and a hat trick against the U.S. made Jágr, 39, a tournament All-Star forward for the third time (2004, 2005), as well as tournament’s Best Forward. In the Turin Olympics, when Sweden and Finland also played in the final, and the Czechs beat Russia in the bronze medal game, Jágr announced his retirement from national team duty. This time he didn’t.

“I’m not going to say I’m not going to play (in the national team) anymore. If I feel good and feel that I can help the team, of course I’m going to play. I have no problem to play these games. If I want to play hockey a little longer, I have to do something. If I’m going to rest three months at my age, it’s not going to help me,” he said.

He finished his third straight season with Omsk Avangard in the KHL – 51 points in 49 games – but will now take his time before making up his mind about next season.

There have been rumors about Jágr returning to the NHL, and the charisma of the Czech star is such that even a tiny hint is enough to start a speculation. This time around the teams mentioned have been the Penguins, the New York Rangers, his last NHL team, and the Montreal Canadiens – especially after Jágr seemed to hit it off with Tomáš Plekanec.

“Maybe it would be fun to play in the NHL. Maybe Pittsburgh. Maybe Montreal. Maybe New York. I played in Pittsburgh a long time and Mario is the owner, and it’s always better to play with great centers like (Sidney) Crosby and (Yevgeni) Malkin, the game’s a little bit easier then. I would like to score some goals, empty-netters, with guys like that it’s always easier,” he said laughing.

Then again, he played down a recent attempt to patch the relationship with the Penguins.

“I got a letter from the GM, invitation to a golf tournament, but, first, I don’t play golf. And second, if I decide to play in Russia, our training camp starts in July,” he said, and grinned.

“New York? I’ll never forget that they gave me a second chance. Montreal? They’re crazy about hockey and I’ve never played in Canada,” he said.

Jágr still protects the puck better than anybody, and he’s faster than he looks. In the game against the U.S., he managed to score on a breakaway in which he basically outskated an American defenceman.

“The big ice, and the way you have to play here, makes that my skating is a lot better than when I left the NHL. I remember when I played a season in Europe (in Omsk in 2004-05) and then came back to New York, I had my best season in a long time. It’s always helped me,” he said.

Whether he’ll get back to the NHL or not, Jágr, the last of the Czechoslovak era players, proved that he’s still a top player. At 39, he also works hard to keep it that way. His game-day early skates – often in shorts – are legendary, and it’s not a rare sight to see Jágr work out with special equipment long after the game has ended. Last year, he even hired a personal skate sharpener, Joe Frei, to come to Omsk with him.

“When Jágr went out to a practice, and skated, he came back to tell me how 'unbelievable' it was, and that he had never in his life felt like that on his skates,” Frei, who did equipment repairs and skate sharpening for all the teams at the Olympics, told Windsor Star last year.

Not even Jágr can keep everything under control, but he’s fine with that. He starts his games by making a cross across his chest, ends them the same way. He also has a tiny cross drawn on his sticks.

“I’ve always believed in God and I know that he helps me. Whatever happens, (it) is the best thing for me. I trust Him. More than my agent,” Jágr said, laughing.

Whether his agent gets him an NHL deal or not, whether he stays in the KHL or not, Jágr does know where his career will come to its end. At home. Last February, he agreed to take over the Kladno club presidency from his 70-year-old father, Jaromír Jágr, Sr. And he's currently in talks to become a majority shareholder in the financially troubled club.

“For sure, I’m going to finish my career at home (in Kladno), but I just don’t know when,” Jágr said.

The torch is on its way, but for now, the next Kladno star will just have to wait.

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