Work in Sports
Jagr grows into extraordinary role
Posted: Friday May 05, 2000 12:12 PM
By Kostya Kennedy, Sports Illustrated
We've known for years that Jaromir Jagr is the best player on the planet. We didn't need his dazzling playoff numbers this year (eight goals and eight assists) to remind of us of that. His gorgeous three-point virtuoso in the Penguins' 4-3 loss to the Flyers in Game 3 simply reconfirmed the obvious. Last week's announcement that Jagr is once again a finalist for league MVP has long been a foregone conclusion.
For all the glitter on his resume and all the hard evidence of his gaudy statistics, Jagr's greatness can be measured by this simple fact: In every game he plays, he is the player who most effects what goes on the ice, the player every teammate and every opponent reacts to.
That's who he was in Pittsburgh's epic, five-overtime, 2-1 loss in Game 4. Even as Jagr went pointless in nearly an hour of ice time, the Flyers caved in on him each time he went over the boards. For much of the long night, his linemates did all they could to get him the puck. Time after time Jagr swept dangerously into the Flyers zone, setting up scoring opportunities with brilliant passes the scoresheet won't show. All of that despite so often being draped by a Flyers player -- or three. "You have one job when you're out there and that's not to let Jagr do anything," says Flyers winger Craig Berube. "Let other guys do stuff, but not him."
The early stages of Thursday night and Friday morning also provided a few more signs of Jagr's emergence as Penguins leader and NHL poster boy. We saw him shed another layer of the indolence and inconsistency that sometimes characterized his early years as a superstar.
For me this emergence traces to the All-Star game in Tampa Bay two years ago. Forty-five minutes after that exhibition ended I walked into the World team workout room and found exactly one player inside. It was Jagr, on the bike and dripping sweat.
Last summer Jagr cut his hair and this winter he appears in that sweet NHL ad for pond-hockey heroes. In that spot, it is Jagr who summons the other would-be leaders of today's game -- Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure -- and gets them to clack their stocks on the ice in appreciation of three of their most majestic forefathers, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Mario Lemieux.
He has carried the Penguins this postseason, under owner Mario's watchful gaze. Jagr wasn't satisfied after Pittsburgh walloped the Capitals 7-0 in its first postseason game. Nor was he satisfied with advancing to the second round. He certainly wasn't satisfied with a two-games-to-none lead against the Flyers. Jagr called Game 3 a "must-win," then played it with a killer's instinct.
Two incidents from Thursday night: In the second period Pittsburgh's fourth-line winger Rob Brown lost his helmet and was sitting bareheaded on the bench. When the whistle blew, Jagr took it upon himself to scoop Brown's helmet onto the blade of his stick and skate the width of the ice to give it to him. Brown grinned as he thanked Jagr. "He got it for me!" Brown exclaimed to his teammates showing the natural awe a fourth-line winger would feel for the game's best player.
Then, in the first overtime, Flyers goalie Brian Boucher came out of his net to smother a puck. Jagr, streaking in (naturally) brushed against Boucher. When play stopped Jagr skated by and gently tapped Boucher's pads to say the collision was accidental.
Two small incidents not lost, not without significance in the long and epic game. Two small incidents not lost, not without significance in the ongoing journey of Jagr's long and epic career.
Sports Illustrated staff writer Kostya Kennedy is covering the Stanley Cup
playoffs for the magazine. He will check in periodically with postcards from the
edge of the action.