Jaromir Jagr knew it would be quite a challenge to say goodbye to the NHL and breathe life into a new league that has visions of becoming the world’s best collection of hockey talent.
He never could have imagined just how tough his task would become.
Just three months into his new career in Russia’s Continental Hockey League, Jagr has already endured the death of a 19-year-old teammate and seen his North American coach leave in the middle of a game.
He is nowhere near ready to run back to the NHL, but hasn’t ruled out a return, either. For now, he is just trying to figure out how to prepare for an all-star game that will be played outside at one of the world’s most famous attractions on a team that is named after him.
On Saturday, Team Jagr, made up of non-Russian all-stars, will take on Team Yashin – a club of Russians headed by former New York Islanders player Alexei Yashin – in Moscow’s Red Square. The forecast is for morning snow showers and freezing temperatures.
“I’ve never played on open ice. I don’t know how cold it could be,” Jagr said Friday. “It’s Moscow and you know how cold it is here.”
Jagr hadn’t seen the rink upon his arrival Friday, and couldn’t picture how the home of the Kremlin that he visited as a young boy would look. He understands how important the game could be to the KHL, a league that is reportedly having financial problems that could make player contracts tenuous.
“It’s always important to be noticed and make a good name for yourself,” said the 36-year-old Jagr, who signed a two-year deal with Avangard Omsk. “You just have to do it. It’s not only about hockey, but any sport does it. You want to bring something new to make the fans excited.
“The NHL did a different thing. It used to be West and East, and after it was Europeans against North Americans. They want to change it, too.”
This whole season has been new for Jagr, even though he got a taste of what life would be like playing in Russia when he first went to Omsk during the 2004-05 NHL lockout. When a new deal couldn’t be worked out last summer with the New York Rangers, the Czech Republic native went back to the Russian club that courted him heavily.
Tragedy struck in October, just days into the season, when Alexei Cherepanov – a first-round draft pick of the Rangers and Jagr’s close friend – collapsed next to him on the bench after a shift and later died. The lack of an ambulance and an uncharged defibrillator hindered resuscitation efforts.
“We played in Chekhov in a small, small arena,” Jagr said in a phone interview. “The ambulance somehow left before the game for whatever reason. It happened in the last three minutes before the game ended and probably nobody thought something like that could happen.
“It looked like everything happened at the wrong time, the worst time. It was just bad luck.”
Jagr has already noticed changes around the league as it tries to prevent any kind of recurrence. He isn’t one to second-guess or criticize. Many of the arenas in the KHL are new and should be able to provide adequate care.
Yet, sometimes it takes a tragedy to occur to understand just what measures need to be taken.
“Nobody really thought 9/11 could happen, but it happened,” he said. “After that day, everything has changed. The security got better and everything got better. But if the security had gotten better before, people would be complaining, ‘Why do we have to wait here hours before the flight.’ Now nobody complains because something happened.”
Cherepanov constantly picked Jagr’s brain as he tried to prepare for a career in the NHL and New York. Even though he was nearly half his age, Cherepanov impressed Jagr and earned the respect of the nine-time NHL all-star, who scored 646 goals and 1,599 points – the most for a European-born player – in 17 seasons.
Questions remain about what caused Cherepanov’s death. He was diagnosed with a heart problem, but recent findings said the young star had been using a banned performance-enhancing drug.
None of that mattered to Jagr and his teammates, who had to go on without him.
“The body and the mind was not 100 per cent there. Now it’s a lot better,” Jagr said. “You are telling yourself it’s only a two-hour game and that you have to forget about everything. But it’s not only two hours. You have to get ready with the practices and everything for the game. That’s probably been the toughest thing.”
The hockey side hasn’t been smooth, either.
Jagr leads his team with 21 goals and 44 points in 42 games, but the quality of play isn’t at the NHL level yet. Jagr insists there is untapped talent throughout the league that North American scouts have no idea about.
The KHL has a fair share of former NHL players, yet few own the star power of Jagr and Yashin. That doesn’t make him any more comfortable to be on an all-star team that bears his name.
“It’s something new, but I would be happy if they would call it the visitors or Russians against Europeans or whatever,” Jagr said. “But they decided to name it after me.”
Once the all-star break is over, Jagr will return to his team that is apparently without its coach.
Wayne Fleming, a good friend of Rangers coach Tom Renney, left his job as a Calgary Flames assistant amid urging from Jagr to lead Avangard this season. Fleming left Thursday night’s game after the second period and didn’t come back.
Reports say Fleming was fired in the middle of the game.
Jagr doesn’t know what happened and says he is unaware of any monetary problems with the KHL. One of the league’s top sponsors, a major oil company, has struggled during the world financial crisis and has had shipments to Europe stopped due to a dispute.
As far as Jagr knows, his club and his high salary appear to be safe. But how long will that last?
Jagr still keeps an eye on the NHL and the Rangers, and has remained in touch with Renney. So far, his former coach hasn’t asked him to come back to help the struggling club that recently fell out of first place.
“No he didn’t. That’s why I don’t talk to him anymore,” Jagr said with his customary laugh.
Jagr has talked about going home to Kladno, Czech Republic, to play for the local team run by his father in a new rink built for the club. He isn’t sure if an NHL comeback will happen, but he admits the thought has crossed his mind.
If he does come back, it’ll likely be with the Rangers or the Pittsburgh Penguins, the team with which he became a superstar alongside former teammate Mario Lemieux, who now owns the club.
“I would just go there and play for them for the minimum salary,” Jagr said. “I owe Mario so much because he taught me how to play hockey. If he would want me to, I would come back for the minimum and try to help him. But he doesn’t need me. He has good players there.”