The 1980s were a simple time, a decade when i's, not corns, were dotted, when a young Oakland A's slugger ( Jose Canseco, not Mark McGwire) looked to be the next Babe Ruth, and when a total of eight goals in an NHL game was the norm, not the piddling 5.49 per game so far this season. Between 1980-81 and 1988-89 a dozen players had seasons in which they amassed 150 or more points; in the 1990s, when the league imported even more slick forwards from Europe and immediately forgot how to use them, only three players reached that plateau. The rugged player of the '80s was transformed into the system drone of the '90s, which is why Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Jaromir Jagr, the most self-reliant player in hockey, is the game's biggest anomaly.
With 32 goals and 39 assists in 39 games through Sunday, Jagr was close to a 150-point pace and was leading the league in both categories, something not achieved outright since Wayne Gretzky did it 13 years ago. Night after night Jagr finds not only open ice but also the inherent joy of his sport. He dances and dazzles, getting seven points against the hapless New York Islanders in one game, derailing the powerful Detroit Red Wings with a goal and an assist in the next, and, in the match after that, twisting New Jersey Devils checker Claude Lemieux into a pretzel by putting the puck through Lemieux's legs at the Penguins' blue line and creating a three-on-two. Jagr, with sturdy haunches that make him all but impossible to bump off the puck, puts on That '80s Show for almost 82 games a season. He's setting hockey back more than 10 years.
"The game in the 1980s was played with the puck," Toronto Maple Leafs goalie Glenn Healy says. "In the '90s it became a game of often willingly losing possession, of dumping the puck in and moving the battle to other areas, such as behind the net and in the corners. Jagr is an '80s player because he holds on to the puck and tries to make plays. He won't give it up until there is absolutely no other play, which isn't often, because he has the ability to make something out of nothing, even a one-on-three. As a goalie you're always aware of Jagr's presence on the ice."
Jagr's scoring rampage in an era of constipated hockey has ended debate about who is the NHL's best player. "With no disrespect to the other guys," says New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko, a 15-year veteran, "you've got [Eric] Lindros, [Paul] Kariya, [Teemu] Selanne and [Peter] Forsberg here, and Jagr head and shoulders above them, up there." That assessment was implicitly endorsed by Gretzky last April when he blessed Jagr with a private word during the Great One's retirement ceremony. "Maybe that's why I play good right now," Jagr said last week, his face crinkling in merriment as he sat at his locker. "I don't want to make Wayne a liar."
Jagr doesn't demur on the subject of his stature, and he offers no disclaimers about good bounces or lucky breaks or other locker room lies. If he's not an aw-shucks guy, neither is he chest-thumpingly vain. At almost 28 years of age, with three scoring titles and a Hart Trophy behind him, he has been freed from polite pretense. "I got something," says Jagr, whose career 1.33 points-per-game average ranks fifth among players with at least 500 games. "I got a gift from God or wherever. Not to use it and enjoy it, that would be a sin. Maybe 10 years later I would look back and say, 'Damn, I was so stupid.' I don't want to feel bad about what I have, which is what is motivating me to be the best. This is a big responsibility. Mario [ Lemieux, the Pittsburgh owner and former star] and those other guys gave me [two Stanley Cups] when I was young. I wasn't a big part of those teams [in 1991 and '92]. That's why I call it a gift. Now it is my time to help somebody else win a Cup."
Although the Penguins still look like a one-round-and-out team, their odds of advancing in the postseason improved immeasurably when Herb Brooks replaced Kevin Constantine as coach on Dec. 9. Since then Pittsburgh had vaulted to sixth in the Eastern Conference by going 10-5 through Sunday. Brooks has lightened the atmosphere in the dressing room and discarded the defensive bias that in recent years had put the Penguins simultaneously in the playoffs and in a foul mood. In his last three games under Constantine, Jagr had his worst stretch of the season: a total of one assist. General manager Craig Patrick says the firing occurred because Constantine had lost the respect of his players, but one player is conspicuously more equal than others in Pittsburgh. Jagr, the captain, never hid his differences with Constantine, whose gravest mistake was not that he gave structure to hockey's most casual team but that he denied Jagr what he craves most: freedom.
"Freedom is the best thing you can have," Jagr says. "You want total freedom, you have to be the best. Kings. They have the most freedoms, right? If you're second, you don't have total freedom, because then you have to listen to the [person who is] first. Freedom to do anything you want is a big bonus."
Jagr, a strapping 6'2", 234-pounder, will take his liberties small. He wants the freedom to get the occasional day off from practice, as he did on Jan. 4 when his legs ached; the freedom to have the occasional middling game, as he did the next night against the Devils; the freedom not to wear a helmet at the game-day skate, as he did last Friday morning (he was the only Penguin to go topless) before picking up two assists against the Maple Leafs.
At the skate Jagr showed off his privilege and his hair. He lost his trademark ringlets last summer in a series of haircuts that began in Prague and ended in Milan, where Jagr strolled into a salone da barbiere and asked a barber to make him look Italian. That there was a big fuss over the haircut in NHL precincts was not that surprising, given that hair often is an issue with mythological heroes such as Samson. Or Gretzky, who had more 'dos than Hillary Clinton. Before submitting to the scissors, Jagr consulted with his agent, Mike Barnett, several times. The haircut wasn't about Jagr's growing up. It was about doing something for the hell of it, a part of his personality that seems forgotten in recent portrayals of the new, mature Jagr.
If tangible proof of Jagr's growth were necessary, it wasn't lying on the barber's floor. Rather, it was paraded during Game 6 of Pittsburgh's first-round playoff against New Jersey last May. A limping Jagr, who had missed the previous four games with a groin injury, scored two goals, including the winner in overtime. In that match he elevated himself from blessed talent to extraordinary player, one capable of bequeathing a gift such as the Stanley Cup. Jagr was then, and is now, a cut above.