“They give up so much in life for me,” he says of his parents. “They truly give up. It’s not like parents who drive their kids to practice. They did everything, and they didn’t know if I was ever going to be able to play in the NHL.”
One of the few upsides of living under the communist regime was that youth sports were free. At age 7, Jágr says, he started doing 1,000 squats and 150 pushups a day. He got stronger and better. He started playing with kids two and three years older than him. While other children his age had one practice and game a week, he would have four practices and games in different age groups. By 16, he was playing for Kladno’s pro team in the highest-level Czech league, but he couldn’t prepare for exactly what his move to Pittsburgh and the NHL would mean.
“I became a soap opera,” Jágr says. “I wasn’t the only one to defect, but I was 18. I was the youngest one. I was the only one to win scoring titles, the MVP. So I become their guy.”
It is impossible to know what being this kind of national figure feels like, and when I ask Jágr about it, he shrugs it off. It’s just what happened, he says. The timing was right. But later, he begins to talk about the pressure he felt as a young player in the NHL.
“When I was younger, of course, I wanted to win the scoring titles,” Jágr says. “That was my goal. When I win it, the season was good. And if I didn’t win it, I didn’t play good. I didn’t have a good season. That was in my head. Everything in your head. Whatever you put in your head, it is going to happen.”
I ask him if that is why he is in the NHL, to reach 700 goals, to bump past his former teammate, mentor, and fellow Penguin playmaker Mario Lemieux on the all-time points chart.
“It is funny how this works,” he says before a long pause. “How to explain it. Everything changes with your age. You are different thinking. I think you are less selfish. When you are younger you try to prove to the world that you’re the best, or whatever. And when you are paid the most on the team, if you are not the best on the team, the media go after you more than anybody. And it is not good if you have a bad season. It is not a good feeling, trust me. But when you are older you just think differently. I never look at the long stats.”
In 1994, after the Penguins won their second Stanley Cup, a 22-year-old Jágr appeared on a talk show on Czech television and told an interviewer he hoped to retire at 30, after making his money, to enjoy life. But turning 30 coincided with his big contract. Jágr converted to Orthodox Christianity in 2001, right at the time when life got difficult for him—the bad years in Washington, the tax and gambling issues. By the time he decamped to Siberia in 2008, he was 36, unmarried, and still playing hockey.
“I was just happy to be on the ice,” Jágr says of his early years in the league. “I had a car. I could buy some stuff.”
In another old video from Czech TV in the 1990s, a young Jágr shows reporters around his parents’ farm. His mother fries pastries on a small electric hot plate as she talks about her son. Jágr takes a hockey stick and maneuvers a small ball around a barking farm dog. Toward the end of the segment, Jágr rolls out his black Mitsubishi 3000 GT from a clapboard garage. He runs his hand along the sleek sports car and grins at the camera.
These days Jágr drives a white Mercedes with an expired temporary resident tag. Stretch tells me he has been trying to get Jágr to take care of his car’s registration for more than a month, but he can’t get his attention long enough to fill out the paperwork. I wonder if there are unpaid tickets, and if there are, are they really Stretch’s problem?
I also wonder why Jágr is still doing this. He has money. He owns a hockey team in his hometown. He could return to Kladno and finish out his career a hometown legend. Instead, he is in Dallas, playing alongside kids half his age, getting whipped by the league’s best, beating his body late into the night after the game to stay fit enough to continue to perform at the highest level in his sport.
“It’s in my genes,” Jágr says. “My dad is 70, and he still has a farm and he’s working every day. My mother, it’s the same thing. I cannot stop. I don’t think our family enjoyed life much. We feel like we have to work all the time.”
Well, at least you love what you do, I say.
“But you know what? My dad fucking loves the farm,” he says. “I ask him, ‘Why do you do that?’ Because he doesn’t have to work—he’s so rich. And he answers, ‘I have to be loyal to the things that fucking got me to be rich. When I had nothing, that gave me food.’ ”
Jágr stops suddenly and jumps up from his seat. “Good enough?” he asks, walking away. I get up after him and look at my recorder. We’ve been talking for 40 minutes. I thank him for his time.
“I give you a lot more than I fucking thought I would,” he says, not really to me, but just looking out across the empty room. “You owe me big bucks for that.”
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