With his decision to play in Russia for the next two seasons, the NHL has likely seen the last of Jaromir Jagr. This is a sad thing for me, not just as a Penguins fan, but as a hockey fan in general. Jagr, one of the best offensive players in NHL history, deserved a better way to go out than this.
Jagr has always been a polarizing figure among fans as he was never the most personable guy in the league. He burned a lot of bridges with the way he left Pittsburgh and similarly when he was traded from the Washington Capitals to the New York Rangers. I can see why Caps fans were upset with Jagr as they never really saw the kind of hockey they expected to from the talented Czech, but when you consider the spare parts they gave up to acquire Jagr they still came out ahead on that deal.
Jagr's relationship with Penguins fans is another story. Jagr did not handle his exit from the Penguins well and he, deservedly so, drew the ire of the Penguins faithful. I had no problem at all with Jagr being booed during his first few visits back to Pittsburgh with the Capitals. I do think though that at some point Penguins fans needed to move on and remember Jagr for all that he had done for the Penguins. The final chapter in Jagr's time as a Penguin may not have gone well, but that should not have overshadowed his total body of work in black and gold, and I for one was hoping to see a new chapter to the story written in 2008-09. Unfortunately Jagr has chosen Russia over the Igloo in a move that all but certainly closes the door on him ever returning to the Penguins.
Growing up a young hockey fan in California, we didn't have televised hockey until my cable provider picked up SportsChannel before the 1991-92 season. By that time my beloved Pittsburgh Penguins were defending Stanley Cup champions and a young, mulleted Jagr was beginning his ascent to the top of the NHL. Though I started following hockey in the 80's, it didn't really amount to much more that checking the paper every morning until we finally got hockey on TV in '91. What the really means is that even though I followed the NHL before Jagr's arrival in 1990, I've never really known the NHL without him. The only other guy left who I really identify with being in the NHL when I really came on board is Joe Sakic, and he may be ready to walk away as well. In many ways Jaromir Jagr's departure for Russia has closed the door on the NHL of my youth.
So where does that leave Jagr in Penguins and NHL history? To me, the first thing that comes to mind is that Jagr was the second-most dominant player I have ever seen behind Mario Lemieux. No other players I have watched even come close to those two in terms of being able to simply step on the ice and take over a game. Without actually taking the time to figure it out for certain, I would guess that I saw Jagr play in person more than any other player, and he was worth the price of admission every time. I remember a game in San Jose against the Sharks, I got there a few minutes late (I had flown up from Long Beach just for the game) and Jagr had taken an early penalty. As soon as he got out of the box he got the puck and completely controlled the play inside the Sharks zone for about the next minute. There wasn't a player on the ice for San Jose who was going to get the puck off of his stick. Those are the types of moments I think of when I look back on Jagr's NHL career. When Jaromir Jagr was on his game he was an unstoppable force. There is not a single player in the NHL today who comes close to Jagr's ability to completely control a game. Not one.
Jagr may never get the credit he deserves as a player, mainly thanks to his demeanor off of the ice, but it is easy to see that he is among the best to ever take the ice in the National Hockey League. He currently sits ninth on the career scoring list with 1599 points, and he could have definitely made it as high as second on the list after another three or four productive years. He is 12th on the all-time goals list with 646, and again another three or four years would have surely seen him crack the top five. The same could be said for assists, where he currently ranks 13th with 953 for his career. Jagr also put together quite the collection of silverware during his time in the NHL with a Hart Trophy (he should have also won it in 1995 and 2006), three Pearson Trophies, five Art Ross Trophies, and a pair of Stanley Cups. Jagr was also named to the NHL First All-Star team seven times. Arguably more impressive than all of that was the fact that from the period of about 1995 until 2001 there was no player in the NHL better than Jagr. Jagr was the one player who seemed somewhat immune to all of the trapping and obstruction of the late-90's.
Jaromir Jagr may be walking away from the NHL before his time was up, but at least he went out in vintage Jagr fashion. Jagr was the best player by far for the Rangers in this year's playoffs and seemed to have rediscovered some of his old magic as he at times was able to carry the Rangers to victory. Jagr was the best Ranger on the ice for each of New York's five games against Pittsburgh, and it is worth noting that he was the NHL's leading scorer through two rounds. Somewhere along the way there Jagr made a connection with Ranger fans and has ultimately left them wanting more.
I will have many fond memories of Jaromir Jagr's time in the NHL. I'll always have that goal against the Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Finals. I'll always have him scoring in OT to send Wayne Gretzky out a loser in his final game. I'll always have the Jagr/Francis/Lemieux line in '96. I'll always have the way he made defenders look like rag dolls on the ice. What I won't have is the privilege of watching Jagr work his way up the list of the NHL's all-time greatest scorers. I won't have one last season with Jagr back in black and gold. Jaromir Jagr gave hockey fans everything they could have wanted in his 19 NHL seasons, but in the end he still left me wanting more.
Here's just a bit of Jagr being Jagr: