PHILADELPHIA – Jaromir Jagr had a personal soundtrack at the old Spectrum.
He was one of the more gifted players in the game and played for the hated Pittsburgh Penguins, a potent 1-2 punch that made it easy for Philadelphia fans to jeer him.
But that mullet!
With his party-in-the-back locks flowing out of his helmet, it was even more fun to razz him. Flyers fans pursed their lips for derisive whistles and catcalls, and Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” blasted through the arena.
Hairstyles and jerseys change.
Now, the dude looks like a Flyer, and Jagr lined up for the home team still seems as weird as seeing the hairs on the back of his neck.
Jagr left Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League to make a return to the NHL, and he’s not alone. Goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, a two-time all-star and former winner of the Calder Trophy for top rookie, also found a desire to get back. After a stint in the KHL, he’s now with the New York Islanders.
But Jagr is the marquee name in the equation. And boy is it strange to see him in the orange and black.
“They whistled and booed him,” Flyers president Peter Luukko said about Jagr’s former days. “But they all wished they had him.”
When the Flyers underwent their off-season makeover—jettisoning stars Mike Richards and Jeff Carter—they shocked the league when they swooped in and signed Jagr after a three-year stint in Russia.
At 39, and two decades removed from winning two straight Stanley Cups, the Flyers are counting on Jagr to still be a 50-to-60-point force on a team with serious Stanley Cup aspirations. The pre-season returns for the 1999 league MVP were promising. Jagr scored four goals, shined on the power play, and seems set to share a potential dominant line with franchise cornerstones James van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux.
He wowed Giroux, an all-star last season, with the looks-effortless way he takes over a game.
“Just the way he gets open, it’s pretty unbelievable,” Giroux said. “He moves the puck quick and it takes two seconds and he is open again. Any time you play with a guy like that, it’s going to open up a lot of plays.”
Just what the Flyers are counting on.
Jagr surprised even himself that he now wears the sweater with the famous “Flying P” on it in his NHL comeback. He scored 66 goals in 155 games over three years and enjoyed life playing in the KHL for Avangard Omsk. But he played last spring for the Czech Republic in the world championships, totalling nine points in nine games. And he proved to NHL scouts—the Flyers sent Ken Hoodikoff, Ilkka Sinisalo and Matti Kautto to work the tournament—that he had still had something left in the tank.
Detroit expressed interest in bringing Jagr to the NHL for the first time since he played the 2007-08 season with the New York Rangers. Led by his former teammate and now Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, the Penguins made a pitch. Coach Dan Bylsma even publicly lobbied for Jagr to return to his original NHL home.
The Penguins offered Jagr a US$2-million, one-year deal and awaited his decision. When Jagr hesitated, the Penguins withdrew the offer, allowing Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren to extend a $3.3-million, one-year contract.
“I don’t know if I’m going to play good or bad, I can’t answer that one,” Jagr said. “But I’m 100 per cent sure I’m going to do everything to play well.”
Jagr has given an instant boost to the power play, the special teams unit that caused the Flyers fits last season. The fans love him—those Penguins days are all deep in the past—and players who grew up admiring the five-time scoring champion can’t believe they share a locker-room with him.
Even in the pre-season, with plenty of empty seats at the Wells Fargo Center, there still could be seen several Jagr jerseys and T-shirts already in the stands.
“I don’t think anyone expected him to come back and be as good as he has shown so far in camp,” Flyers forward Danny Briere said. “It’s very exciting foreveryone. It’s exciting for me to have the chance to skate with him and to play with him.”
That respect goes both ways.
One reason Holmgren traded goal scorers like Carter and Richards was because he believed van Riemsdyk and Giroux were good enough, maybe even better, to fill their roles. It’s their turn to carry the burden of leading the Flyers to their first Stanley Cup championship in 1975. Van Riemsdyk had 21 goals and 40 points last year with the Flyers, then scored seven goals in 11 playoff games. Giroux led the Flyers with 76 points.
Pair them with Jagr and that Stanley Cup just might find its way back to Philadelphia.
Asked who Giroux reminds him of, Jagr took a long pause, and realized the answer was in front of him.
“Me? A younger me?” he said, laughing.
“But no, it’s like playing with Mario Lemieux, but just a little but smaller. Good player, and he’s has a good career in front of him.”
For now, all is good between Jagr and the Flyers.
Jagr, admittedly, had worn out his welcome with Pittsburgh and his relationship with Lemieux became strained. He wanted to be paid more than Scott Gomez and Chris Drury if he was going to spurn the KHL offer and stick with the Rangers. When it didn’t happen, he bolted. Both Gomez and Drury are now no longer with New York, either.
Jagr is sensitive and his penchant for freelancing takes some getting used to. He played parts of three seasons with the Capitals, too, before being traded to New York. Washington wasn’t a fit, either.
“It’s not easy to play with me, trust me,” Jagr said. “I couldn’t find many guys who would get used to me and who I was happy with.”
Jagr said this comeback isn’t about money or being a franchise player. He’s promised nothing but effort and has done his part to lead a team already captained by fellow MVP Chris Pronger, a defenceman. He’s been meticulous in his conditioning, and returns to the ice after practice for some late-day workouts.
Luukko had a conversation with new Flyers forward Jakub Voracek, acquired in the Carter deal, at his introductory news conference. Voracek played with Jagr in the world championships and was awed by his dedication at working out for another two hours after a game.
“You could see the impact it had on him,” Luukko said. “It was like, ‘Wow, that’s guy’s amazing.’ It does a lot of good.”
Amazing just scratches the ice.
Jagr has 646 goals and 1,599 points in his NHL career, ranking among the game’s all-time best. The Czech star is one of 25 players with a Stanley Cup and gold medals from the Olympics and world championships.
But all of that is behind him now.
It’s making an impact on the Flyers that matters this year.
“I want,” he said, “to be a plus for this team.”