Jagr’s Value to Flyers Will Extent Beyond Play on Ice

By David Strehle
ot Stove Managing Editor

It is indeed a strange sight to see winger Jaromir Jagr donning the Orange-and-Black, especially for those residing in such arch-rival NHL cities as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.

AP Wirephoto

For those of us who have witnessed the entire career of the Czech-native, the visions of a young Jagr scoring so many highlight reel goals for the Penguins – and so many against the Flyers – immediately comes to mind.

After winning a second Stanley Cup in just his second NHL season with the Penguins, Jagr alluded to the fact that things were coming pretty easy, and that he expected the result year after year.

Now 39 years old and having experienced much during the past 21 years, he is much wiser in his expectations – and knows the sacrifice involved with attaining such heights.  ”Well, to be honest, when I came in the league, I was 18 years old,” Jagr said yesterday.  ”During the Communist years, there were not many people (in Czechoslovakia) who knew about the NHL.  All we knew about were the Olympics and Czech Leagues.  That was my first time out of the house, I was a little bit homesick, and I wanted to go home after the season.  But we kept winning and winning and then we won the Stanley Cup.  I didn’t appreciate what I won.  I thought it was going to be like that every year.”

We had a great team,” he continued.  ”I was pretty lucky.  I was playing with a lot of great players that I could learn from.  That was probably the best thing that happened to me in my hockey career.”

He’s right.  Playing alongside the likes of future Hall-of-Famers Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, current Flyers’ assistant coach Joe Mullen, and the legendary Mario Lemieux, Jagr not only learned what it took to become an elite player, he also saw what it took to become a champion.

Jagr could help bring that same knowledge to a stable of young players in Philadelphia.  Yesterday, Peter Laviolette had him skating on a line with Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk.  Asked what his early impressions are of the young players, Jagr was forthcoming.  ”A lot of guys who are stars here, they had just started when I was leaving,” he said of the pair.  ”I think after the first practice you cannot really say.”

But he did do some homework in seeing what kind of players in which he may be sharing ice time.  ”I was watching on Youtube and on NHL.com, some highlights of those players,” Jagr said of Giroux and JVR.  ”I wanted to make sure to see what kind of players we had on the team.  They were scoring big goals and they were kind of impressive.  Those guys are very skilled and they’re very good around the net, and were making good decisions.”

When asked if he would be offering any of the younger guys advice, he left no doubts.  ”Of course, there’s no question about it,” Jagr said.  ”I had it when I was younger, and I said it before – it was probably the best thing that happened to me when I was drafted by Pittsburgh, that I had a chance to play with such great players.  Not only great players, but hard-working guys.  It was no accident that the Penguins in the early 90s were the best team in the NHL.  If you would see all those guys, how they work after practices – Ulf Samuelsson, Rick Tocchet, Kevin Stevens, all those guys – they were competing with each other and I was trying to compete with them.  That’s what put me at a different level.  If somebody asks me for advice, of course I’m going to help them.”

And that’s something that all of the younger players will have on display – Jagr’s work ethic and love for practicing, and GM Paul Holmgren made a point to note the affect it should have on the youngsters.  ”I think his training regimen, what he does – we’ve only seen bits and pieces over the last few days, but it’s second to none,” Holmgren said.  ”Anything that he does off the ice is going to be looked at by our young players as ‘holy mackerel’.  From a role model standpoint and what we believe he’s going to do on the ice for us, I think it’s going to all be good things.”

And when it comes down to it, his on-ice contributions will be one of the biggest measuring tools as to how his stay in Philly will ultimately be judged.

I’m not 21, trying to prove something with my words,” Jagr said, obviously asking for everyone to await making their assessment of what he will mean to this team until after they have seen him play.  ”We’ll just have to wait and see.  I can promise you one thing, that I’m going to give it my best shot to play on a high level.  Don’t forget, I’m 39.  I didn’t come here just to impress myself.  I’m not saying I’m going to be dominating, I’m not saying I’m going to play good.  But I can promise you I’m going to do all the right things to play.”

Flyers – Penguins Rivalry

Jagr was asked what he remembered most about the rivalry between the Flyers and the Penguins.  ”The Flyers were always tough to play against,” he said.  ”They had big guys and always drafted big guys, strong guys that were playing very physical.  I remember I had a tough time playing them.  Nobody wanted to play the Flyers back then.  You knew it was going to hurt to play this team.  That’s what I remember the most.”

After returning to the NHL after a three season respite in Russia’s KHL, he had to make a decision in which city he wanted to call home.  When he spurned an offer from Ray Shero and the Pens and signed with the Flyers, he didn’t realize the ramifications that came along with his choice.  ”First of all, when I was making the decision, I never thought that Pittsburgh fans would want me back,” Jagr said.  ”Every time I played there, they were booing me every time I touched the puck.  I didn’t think it would be such a big deal that I didn’t sign with Pittsburgh.”

When it came right down to it, Philly just seemed like his best option.  ”I had some teams that were interested in me and when I came back to the NHL, I didn’t want to come back just to sit around,” Jagr said.  ”I wanted to still prove that I could play hockey on a high level.  When the Flyers asked me if I would be interested in coming back to play for their team, I was thinking about it and I felt like it would be a good fit for me.  There were a lot of changes, a lot of new guys.”

One of the other clubs to express an interest early in the summer was the Detroit Red Wings.  Looking at the rosters of the Penguins and Red Wings, it’s easy to see that Jagr may have felt that he would not be considered an integral part of those teams with players such as Sidney Crosby (if and when he returns) and Evgeni Malkin (in Pittsburgh), and Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk (in Detroit).

The first time was when I was 36 and I decided to go to Russia, so this was the second time I was a free agent,” he continued.  ”I had a chance to do what I thought was best for me.  If I hurt anybody, I apologize, because I didn’t want to, but on the other side I just don’t understand why people can be that mad about my decision.”

Just a guess here, but I’m betting that even with the apology, he will receive a similar -if not an even more harsh – treatment in Pittsburgh whenever he touches the puck.

When asked what it was like pulling on his orange Flyers jersey at the press conference, he jokingly said “Like ‘What am I doing?‘”  Fans in Philadelphia are hoping the answer to that rhetorical question is beginning an era that leads to another Stanley Cup championship.

If you have any comments or questions, you can email the author at dstrehle@nhlhotstove.com.  You can also follow him on Twitter – @David_Strehle