Jaromir Jagr leaves no doubt as to who is running the Penguins
When SI asked NHL coaches in September, "Who is the best all-around player in the world?" 19 of the 26 respondents named Penguins right wing Jaromir Jagr. The other seven coaches fell into one of those hard-to-figure minorities, like the one dentist in five who does not recommend sugarless gum for his patients who chew gum.
Of course, best all-around doesn't mean most coachable, as Pittsburgh's Ivan Hlinka, the Czech-born coach who was hired in the off-season largely in deference to the Czech-born Jagr, is finding out. Jagr, 28, has been showing familiar signs of disrespect lately. Before a Nov. 4 game against the Flames, he rounded up the Penguins' top two five-man units and devised a checking scheme to replace Hlinka's left wing lock system. Jagr informed the coaches of his initiative after the fact. Then, in the third period of a 5-2 win over Philadelphia on Nov. 8, Jagr went Scottie Pippen on Hlinka, refusing to take the ice during a power play. That led to a long postgame meeting between the two. Since then Jagr—who, despite scoring 25 points in 19 games through Sunday, says he has been disappointed in his play—has missed part of one practice and all of another without explanation.
"He's a great team player," Pittsburgh owner Mario Lemieux says. "He's just frustrated with his game." Lemieux greatly influenced Jagr during the Czech's early years in the NHL. In 1992, Jagr, then 20, watched as Lemieux and other veterans revolted against Scotty Bowman's practice routines and demanded that Bowman's assistants run the drills.
From the start of the 1997 season to December '99, Jagr repeatedly complained about coach Kevin Constantine's system (too constrictive) and hands-on style (too oppressive). That led to Constantine's firing, despite an 86-68-35 record. When Constantine was replaced by the open-ice-minded Herb Brooks, Jagr said he felt as if he had gone "from Siberia to Florida."
Brooks left Jagr alone, realizing that a player of his caliber needs instruction about as much as Yo-Yo Ma needs cello lessons. Hlinka, who coached Jagr and the Czech national team to a gold medal in the '98 Olympics, has abided by a similar philosophy and hasn't criticized Jagr for his shenanigans. The Penguins, after all, led the Atlantic Division with a record of 10-6-2-1 at week's end, and Jagr recently scored his 400th career goal. Not long ago Jagr explained his outbursts by invoking a name from his past: "One great thing Kevin Constantine said was, The best teams try to fix things when they're winning, not after they start to lose.' " Even the world's best player can learn a tiling or two from a coach.
No Solution for Habitual Losing
In explaining Monday's long-anticipated firings of general manager R�jean Houle and coach Alain Vigneault, Canadiens president Pierre Boivin said he had to act "somewhat radically with respect to our hockey administration." The management moves were dramatic but don't expect much change on the ice. The Canadiens, at 5-13-2, were 30th in the 30-team NHL at week's end, and there's not much that new G.M. Andr� Savard (formerly the team's personnel director) and coach Michel Therrien (who had been the head man at Montreal's AHL affiliate in Quebec City) will be able to do about it.
A much-needed overhaul of the Canadiens' thin, starless roster won't occur as long as the team is up for sale. Boivin expects new owners to be announced by the end of the year. "We went into this season knowing that we can't expect much until they sold the team," said Montreal defenseman Eric Weinrich a few days before the firings.
The Canadiens have been lousy as well as unprofitable for years, and though last spring they failed to reach the playoffs for the second straight season, they made no moves to improve the team. That's partly due to the unsettled ownership situation. Before Therrien's hiring, at least one coaching candidate turned down the job for fear that new owners would prefer to bring in their own people.