When the Anaheim Ducks scored two goals in the second period of Monday night’s game against the Dallas Stars, I knew we here at D Magazine had a problem. We were in the final stages of editing a story for the May edition of the print product. The subject was Jaromir Jagr, a 41-year-old winger for the Dallas Stars and one of the greatest — and strangest — players in the history of the NHL.
Our press deadline mirrored the trade deadline for the NHL, and just a week ago, the Stars looked like they might make a last ditch run at the playoffs with Jagr playing a key role. But when Monday’s game slipped away, it was clear that the Stars' season was over. Jagr, a hired gun signed to a one-year contract, was suddenly worth more for the prospects he could bring to the team for future seasons than the goals he could produce in an increasingly meaningless one. And on Tuesday, the Stars traded Jagr to the Boston Bruins.
It’s a fitting coda for our story about Jaromir Jagr, a rootless hockey player who has spent the second half of his storied career wandering around the league (and in Russia). For a few short months in 2013, he was in Dallas. This is what happened.
Walking through the wet, dreary streets of Prague during a brutally cold November night in 1999, the last thing I expected to stumble into was a conversation about hockey. I was in the Czech city for all of 36 hours, staying in a hostel in a repurposed training facility for gymnasts left over from the communist Czechoslovakia. As my traveling partner and I made our way back from a bar on the far side of the Charles Bridge, a short man with a round, hatless head and an oversize overcoat—hands shoved deep in the pockets—walked up alongside us. He said he heard us speaking English and wanted to practice his. I was skeptical. In foreign countries, particularly Eastern European ones at well past 1 in the morning, wandering men don’t approach Americans on the street unless they want something. We chatted about the States, about his city. He had studied English in school but had never traveled outside his country. Finally, he asked an odd question.
“Tell me,” the little man said. “Is Jaromír Jágr really that good?”
By 1999, Jágr, a Czech-born hockey player, was widely regarded as one of the best goal scorers in the world, well on his way to being recognized as one of the best who ever played the game. He had won Stanley Cups in his first and second years in the league with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He had just led the Czech national hockey team to an Olympic gold medal at the 1998 Nagano games. And in 1999, he had won his third Art Ross Trophy, awarded to the player who scored the most points (goals and assists) in a season, as well as both MVP honors—the Hart Memorial Trophy (selected by hockey writers) and the Lester B. Pearson Award (voted on by players). “Good,” I said. “He’s probably the best.”
The man looked down at the wet street. Okay, he says. He wasn’t sure what to think. So much was written about Jágr in the Czech Republic. He was ubiquitous on TV. But could the man trust the broadcasts? Could it really be true? Could a young man from a little Eastern European country go across the sea and become one of the greatest players in the history of the National Hockey League? For the stranger, who had lived most of his life behind the Iron Curtain distrusting and skeptical of all news from the outside, it all seemed a little too much to swallow.
More than 12 years later, the Czech national enthusiasm that surrounds Jágr hasn’t yet subsided. Jágr’s presence in a hockey arena nearly always coincides with a contingent of Czech fans. This past February in Calgary, six Jágr fans dressed in the jerseys from the six teams Jágr has played on throughout his career, capping the costumes with straggly and curly brown-haired wigs, a quirky mix of bowl cut and mullet, saluting Jágr’s distinctive and unmistakable 1990s-era hairdo. On a Thursday night in Dallas in March, 68 members of the local Czech-Slovak association purchased 68 tickets in honor of their national hero. Jágr wears that number as a nod to the Prague Spring of 1968, a student-led revolution that won a six-month spell of freedom in Czechoslovakia, before Soviet tanks rolled into the city and crushed the rebellion. When I asked a few of the Czech fans at that game where Jágr fits on a list of Czech national heroes, they rank him third—after Václav Havel, the poet, politician, and dissident who was instrumental in the overthrow of communism, and Švejk, the subversive fictional hero of Jaroslav Hašek’s beloved anti-war novel The Good Soldier Švejk.
Jágr’s towering presence in the Czech national imagination is as much a product of a serendipitous bit of historical circumstance as it is a reflection of his undoubted skill on the ice. By the age of 16, Jágr was playing at the highest professional level in what was then Czechoslovakia. At 17, he impressed NHL scouts and players alike with his performance at the 1990 World Junior Championships. He was picked fifth overall in the 1990 NHL draft, which should have meant facing the difficult decision to defect from his native country in order to pursue his hockey career. Instead, that summer, the Iron Curtain fell, and Jágr was free to travel to the United States and play professional hockey at precisely the same moment when his fellow countrymen back in Czechoslovakia were free to watch the NHL on television. In those early years after the end of communism, when you flipped on a hockey game in Czechoslovakia, there was Jágr, the teenage wunderkind, dominating.
The transition for Jágr, however, was a difficult one. When he wasn’t on the ice during his first season in the NHL, the homesick 18-year-old star was said to hole up in his room crying, and his mother had to come in from Czechoslovakia to comfort him. His English was nonexistent; the world he entered into was strange and foreign. The Penguins eventually traded for veteran Czech player Jiri Hrdina, now a scout for the Dallas Stars, to help integrate the future star into the locker room.
The strategy seemed to work. In his second year with the team, the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, and Jágr became a household name. You always knew where Jágr was on the ice because of his floppy locks, the curly mullet that spewed out from the back of his helmet. In 1992, during the first game of the Stanley Cup finals, Czech fans who had skipped work or school to watch the live broadcast of the game saw exactly what made the young Jágr special as he helped lead one of the great comebacks in NHL history.