When Jaromir Jagr was 12 years old—long before he was a shaggy-maned, spotlight-nabbing heartthrob of the Pittsburgh Penguins; before he had signed a three-year, $3.8 million contract or been invited with his Stanley Cup-winning teammates to the White House; heck, before he had ever left Kladno, Czechoslovakia—he kept a certain photograph in his grade book at school. Jagr had cut it out of a magazine and hidden it there, sneaking peeks at the picture, knowing there would be hell to pay if the teacher caught him with it.
One day, sure enough, the teacher picked up Jagr's grade book to write down the score he had made on a test and found the photograph. Are you crazy, Jaromir? Take it out, she told him. So he did. But as soon as class was over, Jagr put the photograph of Ronald Reagan, president of the United States, back into his grade book. Jagr admired Reagan because he was somebody who stood up to the Communists, who had identified the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" that Jagr's family knew it to be. Month after month the teacher continued to find that photo of Reagan in Jagr's grade book, continued to admonish him, but she never confiscated it. And every time, when class was over, Jagr would slip it back into its place.
"In school we were always taught the Soviet doctrine," Jagr says. "The U.S.A. was bad and wanted war. Russia was our friend and was preventing the United States from bombing us. Even my father didn't tell me the truth, because he was afraid I'd say something in school that would get us into trouble. But my grandmother, she told me the truth."
Jagr's grandmother Jarmila told the boy about the first Jaromir Jagr, his grandfather and her husband. He was a farmer. When the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, the grandmother said, they appropriated all the privately owned farms. They collectivized his grandfather's fields and three quarters of his livestock. They left him with the house, barn and yard that the family still lives in today—Jagr, his grandmother, his parents and his uncle. (Jagr's sister, Jitka, is now married and lives 10 minutes away.) Then the authorities told Jagr's grandfather that he had to labor in the cooperative farm for free. His grandfather refused to work for those people who had stolen his farm. So he was thrown into jail, and he remained there for more than two years.
Jaromir Jagr, the hockey player, never knew Jaromir Jagr, the farmer. The grandson was born in 1972. The grandfather died in 1968, by coincidence during the glorious days of the Czechoslovakian freedom movement known as the Prague Spring. "He never knew that the Russians came back," Jagr says. But, of course, they did come back, and Jagr's grandmother made sure that he knew how, on Aug. 20-21, 1968, the troops rolled through Czechoslovakia to squash that fledgling movement in less than 48 hours.
Jagr never forgot. That is why he admired Reagan. Why he has an American flag in his bedroom and two decals of Old Glory on the windshield of his car in Kladno. And why the young Penguin star, the flamboyant and seemingly carefree spirit, handsome, athletic and rich, wears number 68, after the Prague Spring of 1968, the spring that his grandfather died.
Zimní (Winter) Stadium, Kladno. A large, nearly toothless woman is making her way down the aisle, past scrunched-up knees and wooden benches, eyeing Jagr, her helpless prey. He sees her coming but cannot, or will not, escape.
"This is my idol," the old woman, speaking Czech, says. "I cried when he went to America. I could not have liked him more if I had given birth to him. Why? Because he's tough and fearless. If I would not be so shy, I would kiss him."
Jagr signs an autograph for the 75-year-old Kladno native, who suddenly loses her shyness and gives him a peck on the cheek. "Sometimes I watch him on satellite," the woman says.
Czechoslovakia's revolution of 1989 enabled Jagr to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL without having to defect. When the Penguins made Jagr their first draft choice in June 1990, the fifth player taken overall, he was in Vancouver for the proceedings, the first time a Czechoslovakian player had attended the NHL draft with his government's blessings. As a result, Jagr, now 20, can return to his family in the summertime, to the farmhouse near Kladno where he grew up.