On Jagr-gate, or why my inner teenager is so conflicted

My father offered me some unsolicited advice in the days before I left to go to college in Pittsburgh:

“If you’re going to date anyone, make sure it’s Jaromir Jagr.”

Truthfully, I had no chance.

But the exchange – now more than 15 years old – was indicative of where Jagr, then a cult hero/NHL All-Star/rock star/hairstyle-challenged/teenage dream stood in the eyes of Pittsburgh sports fans – and of hopeful father-in-laws.

Hence, Jagrmania. Twenty years ago, girls loved Jaromir Jagr. Mothers hated him. Guys wanted to be like him, probably because they envied him. Kit Kat candy bars, Ed Belfour and traffic cops were afraid of him.

But did Pittsburgh fans ever imagine this day?

Jagr returns to Pittsburgh tonight – as a Philadelphia Flyer.

As a hockey fan, do you appreciate what Jagr has accomplished during his time in the game?

As a member of a capitalist society, do you commend Jagr for taking the best paycheck in exchange for the best opportunity to showcase his hockey wares?

As a Penguins fan, are you supposed to hate Jagr for such an act of treason? For choosing Philadelphia over Pittsburgh?

It creates some cognitive dissonance. Especially considering that most of my teenage years were spent watching Jagr work his on-ice (and sometimes off-ice) magic with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yes, I was one of those big-haired screaming teenage girls in the stands at the Civic Arena in the early 1990s. Those were the halcyon days …

These days, I don’t know if I’d be screaming for Jagr. Or if I’d be screaming at him. Because as I look back at his time with the Penguins, and then courting the Penguins, I’m conflicted. So is my inner teenager. It’s like coming to terms with the old boyfriend who jilted you, then who unexpectedly sent you a friend request on Facebook 15 years later, when you thought he’d been thoroughly purged from your memory. But he wasn’t. And his wife was kind of hot.

*sigh*

Jagrmania, it was.

In 1990, the Penguins drafted Jagr out of the Czech Republic. He went from an 18-year-old who spoke little to no English in his first season to a perennial All-Star, a Stanley Cup champion and a western Pennsylvania heartthrob. Oh, and if you rearranged the letters of his first name, it spelled “MARIO JR.” Some believed he was poised to be the franchise after Mario Lemieux’s premature retirement in 1997.

Yes, that's my 1990-1991 Penguins media guide.

But it didn’t work out that way, as he was shipped off to Washington in the summer of 2001, only a few months after the infamous “dying alive” statement.

Still, the love reappeared, nearly nine years later. Jagrmania was back in full tilt in February of 2010 when Jagr returned to North America with the Czech hockey team for the Winter Olympics. Then, it was revived this summer when Jagr openly expressed interest in returning to the NHL after playing three seasons with Avangard Omsk of Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. It seemed like all of hockey was on watch after Jagr announced his intentions to come back to North America.

Seen in Toronto ...

One of those destinations? Pittsburgh.

And Penguins fans, despite the franchise’s embarrassment of riches, were ready to welcome Jagr back, despite the thorny parting of ways nearly 10 years ago. The thought of Jagr returning to Pittsburgh didn’t just bring about Jagrmania. It brought about full-tilt Jagr Madness.

He thought about Detroit. Considered Montreal. Played the dating game with Pittsburgh … and Jagr decided to go to Philadelphia. Was this right? Was this fair? Was this karma?

***

Jagr returns to Pittsburgh tonight for the first time since the 2007-2008 playoffs, and he met with the media this morning in Pittsburgh, prior to tonight’s Flyers-Penguins game at CONSOL Energy Center.

A sampling of what he said:

From the Philadelphia Inquirer (and when you watch this video, make sure the “Rocky” song is playing in the background):

Jaromir Jagr was not himself Wednesday. The usually gregarious Flyers winger, who won five scoring titles with the Penguins, was mostly agitated during a news conference. He admitted on Thursday that he was upset with how the Pittsburgh media has portrayed him.

“Maybe I overreacted. I’m just not happy with some of the media here,” he said after Thursday’s morning skate. “They make up everything. That was the problem. That’s when they start everything, and it’s tough to control.

“It’s bothered me for a long time, and I was a little bit mad about it yesterday,” he added. “It’s not going to help me, but at least” he relieved his frustration.

Among the things that apparently bothered Jagr were reports that he had agreed to return to Pittsburgh before signing with the Flyers.

From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Q: Did the Penguins say anything to you or [your agent] Petr Svoboda when they made the offer about what kind of role you would play?

A: Nobody will tell you how they want to use you. That’s one thing. But you can sometimes read between the lines. I’ve got nothing against [Penguins winger Tyler] Kennedy [who was a restricted free agent last summer] or guys like that, but if somebody tells you, ‘Well, we have to wait for Kennedy,’ and he was playing on the third line, well, where am I going to play if you wait for Kennedy before you sign me? I was reading between the lines. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe I’m right. Nobody’s going to know. Bottom line, I am here, you guys are over there. I’m going to come to the game. Everybody’s going to hate me. And I still have to play. OK? Good luck to everybody. See you next time.

“Hate” is a very strong word. Maybe “pariah” is more fitting. Or “persona non grata.”

Despite the money, the fame, the supposed hate … is there some small part of Jaromir Jagr that’s a bit conflicted about tonight?

If so, my inner teenager, swathed in a mustard yellow-and-black jersey, can relate.

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