Today, a month before the NHL training camps open, he is watching his former team, Poldi Kladno, play its first preseason game. He has been skating with these guys in the mornings, getting in shape for his third NHL season, which he says he is prepared to sit out if the Penguins do not renegotiate a contract that will pay him just $200,000 a year for the next two years. It will not happen, but for now he sounds serious.
"Eric Lindros may be good player, but he is not 15 times better player than me," Jagr says passionately, his English rusty after a summer at home. The negotiations, apparently, are going badly. "——Patrick," Jagr says, referring to Penguin general manager Craig Patrick. "If they don't want to sign me, they don't need me. I don't consider Pittsburgh my team anymore. I love the fans; Pittsburgh has great people. But if they have no money, trade me. I want to be traded where there's beaches."
Hmm. Tampa Bay? San Jose? Los Angeles? Might be a long time between Stanley Cups, he is told, if Patrick accommodates him. "I have two Stanley Cup rings," Jagr shrugs. "I don't need more rings. I just need money and beaches and girls."
As with many of Jagr's pronouncements, this one is followed by a quick, wide, guileless smile. He knows how outrageous what he has just said sounds, and Jagr couldn't care less. He is at home now, the biggest fish in Kladno's pond, psychologically feeling his oats. He is also blowing smoke. Despite the wild-and-crazy-guy image he likes to promote, Jagr is, at heart, a homeboy. He has invited his mother, Anna, to share his house in Pittsburgh this season. Kladno's nightlife? "Life is dead here," Jagr says. He speaks of Prague, a bustling, teeming city just 35 minutes away, as if it were perched near the end of the earth. For amusement, Jagr spends his evenings playing electronic roulette and slot machines at the local video casino. "They get mad because they know I make money in America, then I come and make money on their machines," he boasts.
When Jagr was 15, he was already playing for Poldi Kladno, which plays in the best hockey league in Czechoslovakia. At 16, Jagr was making more money than his father, who had a good administrative job at Kladno's coal mine. Jaromir had always been something of a hockey prodigy. When he was six, he was practicing with three separate age groups, getting three times as much ice time as his peers. "My father's idea," Jagr says. "When I played against other six-year-olds, I was great. When I played against 10-year-olds, I was average. He wanted me to play where I was average."
Jagr's father, also named Jaromir, carefully channeled his only son's talent. After school he played street hockey with the boy in the dirt yard between the house and the barn, scattering the dozens of chickens that Anna kept in the yard, sending them scurrying for shelter beneath the broken-down tractors and wagons. Jagr's father used an axle off one of those old tractors to craft a homemade set of barbells for his son, somehow fashioning round slabs of iron into matching pairs of weights. A steamer trunk covered with towels served as his bench, and when young Jaromir was lifting, building up his muscular frame toward its present 6'2" and 208 pounds, he took inspiration from a pair of posters he had taped to the walls. One poster, circa 1982, was of Wayne Gretzky. The other was of Martina Navratilova, the Czechoslovakian tennis star whose name was never mentioned in the local newspapers because she had defected. Her image fueled Jagr's dreams. Back then, for a Czechoslovakian to play in the NHL, which was the dream of every boy who played hockey, one had to defect.
When Jagr was 17, he became the youngest member of the Czechoslovakian national team, which was one of the best hockey teams in the world. He scratched number 68 on the back of his helmet and skated on a line with two other young Czechoslovakian stars destined for the NHL—Bobby Holik, now with the New Jersey Devils, and Robert Reichel of the Calgary Flames. In the 1990 world championships they faced a makeshift Canadian team of established NHL stars, including Paul Coffey, Steve Yzerman and John Cullen. "We beat those guys," says Jagr. That's when he knew for certain he was good enough to play in the NHL.
But did he have the stomach for it? Living away from home? Playing an 80-game schedule in a strange culture, without friends or the language skills so vitally important to make new friends? "My parents told me that I should stay here and finish school," says Jagr. "But I said I want to play the best hockey in the world."
His rookie season was harder than he had imagined. The Penguins set him up with an English tutor—eight hours a day for four weeks before training camp—and found a Czechoslovakian family in Pittsburgh he could live with. But as the season progressed, Jagr grew increasingly miserable. He missed his family and friends. He never went out. All he had was hockey, and verbal communication was so limited between Jagr and the coaching staff that when the coaches tried to explain to him the rule about the maximum curve allowed on a stick, Jagr thought they were yelling at him again for not shooting enough.
On Dec. 13, recognizing his young star was "slipping farther and farther away," Patrick made a deal with Calgary for a veteran Czechoslovakian player, Jiri Hrdina. "Jags was really down low when I got there," recalls Hrdina, who is back with the Flames now as a scout. "He wasn't going to go home or anything, but he felt alone. I could talk to him about his problems. He's a very smart guy for his age. Very unusual to have the goals he does. He wants to be the best player in the game."