The game is eight hours away, and already they are on him like mousse. Jaromir Jagr takes a seat in the corner of the Pittsburgh Penguin dressing room, still breathing hard from the morning skate, and the cameras and microphones converge as if he had just been traded to the O.J. defense team. The right wing from Kladno in the Czech Republic smiles and answers all the questions, even the ones he doesn't quite understand.
When the crowd finally disperses, Jagr turns and pops a question of his own. He is the leading scorer in the NHL, and the best player on the best team in hockey. A lot of million-dollar adjectives have been used to describe his performance this season, but one word, he insists, keeps tripping him up. He is a bright guy, but his English is still not perfect. He needs help, or maybe he just wants us to think he does.
"You have to explain something to me," Jagr says, with no trace of a smirk. "What is mature? I don't know that word. Everyone talks about it. What's that supposed to mean—mature?"
Well, around the NHL these days, mature is English for "Jagr." The Penguins' hip young prodigy has blossomed into a superstar in the first half of this shortened season, stepping into the void that Mario Lemieux left when he took a medical leave of absence for '95 and lifting the Penguins to a surprising 15-4-2 start. In his first four seasons Jagr never scored 40 goals or 100 points, but at week's end he had 16 goals and 17 assists. In a normal 84-game season those numbers would project to 58 and 62. Everyone from Prague to Pittsburgh knew he had the ability, and now, at the age of 23, fresh from his previous role as understudy to his idol Lemieux, Jagr is proving himself to be a very capable leading man.
"I think he looks around now and says, 'Hey, Mario's gone, maybe this is my show now,' " says teammate John Cullen. "I think he's really enjoying himself."
No mystery there. He is obscenely rich, rock-star handsome and more popular in Pittsburgh than Iron City on tap. He has the body of a boxer-shorts model, hair that Julia Louis-Dreyfus would die for and a new five-year, $19.5 million contract. He just bought a house in a South Hills suburb, where he lives with his mother, Anna. He has always had his fun and put up great numbers, but now he is doing it on the ice instead of in the video arcade. "He just has much more of a sense of responsibility this year," says Penguin coach Ed Johnston. "He has slowed the pace of his life down, and now he's become more focused on what's important."
Now, you could say, he is more mature, even if he might not understand you.
"Getting there—is that what it means?" Jagr says. "Well, I think you could say that about me. It's true. I've changed a lot in the last couple of years. I'm getting there."
Jagr (pronounced YAH-ger, but known to most of his teammates as Yaggs) was not surprised when he heard Lemieux would be sitting out the season. Lemieux played just 22 games in '93-94 and almost never practiced. He was being treated for Hodgkin's disease and suffering from severe back pain, and a grueling NHL season was not the recommended method of rehabilitation. "I couldn't believe he played at all last year," says Jagr. "He was in so much pain."
After losing the best player in their history, the Penguins somehow got better. They went through their first 13 games without a loss, two short of the NHL record for a season's best start. On Feb. 22 they won a wild 5-4 showdown at home against the Quebec Nordiques, who at week's end were in second place behind Pittsburgh in the Northeast Division. Jagr scored the game-winner with a blind backhander from the left circle while wearing Quebec center Bob Bassen like a shawl. It was a goal very few mortals could score. Maybe just Mario and Jaromir, which, as Penguin and anagram fans like to say, is just another way to spell Mario Jr.