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The Peter Pan of hockey sat on the Czech Republic bench, his face wreathed in a smile as he waited for the final 12 seconds to tick down. Jaromir Jagr had the world championships wrapped around his little finger, just like the tape that enveloped his broken pinkie. He had, in his 15-year professional career, demonstrated more jaw-dropping virtuosity, but the artiste with the soft hands and the sometimes too-soft game had never done anything that spoke so eloquently to the essence of his sport. Jagr lifted the Czechs to the world title on Sunday in Vienna--a 3-0 win over Canada--with his guts as much as his gifts and became the 15th player to achieve the champions' hat trick: the Stanley Cup (with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and '92), an Olympic gold medal ('98) and the world title.
The enigmatic New York Rangers right wing probably should not have even been there. In a preliminary-round game against Germany on May 3, he broke the little finger on his left hand, the lower hand on his stick. Jagr's doctor told him the injury needed six weeks to heal and advised him to quit the tournament. Jagr chose to continue. When he made his next appearance, against Slovakia, a section of fans came with pinkies wrapped in white gauze, stood for much of the game and saluted him with their digits. After the match Jagr removed his glove and gave them the finger--his damaged pinkie--right back.
"I couldn't shoot," Jagr said after the medal ceremony. "I could handle the puck.... I tried to concentrate on getting it to other guys." He did that splendidly against Canada, backing off defenseman Sheldon Souray four minutes into the game and whipping a pass across the slot that wound up on Vaclav Prospal's stick for the first goal. But the uniquely Jagr moment came in the third period when his 85-foot, cross-ice pass narrowly eluded a thicket of Canadian sticks in the neutral zone and hit the tape of a streaking Martin Rucinsky, who scored the crusher. "[Jagr] just playing is a big boost," Rucinsky said. "He doesn't have to be scoring every game. He's one of us ... a team player."
Rucinsky's generous assessment might surprise Washington Capitals and Rangers fans, who have seen Jagr float through the past three seasons. They have not been as blessed as the hockey crowd in Omsk, Siberia. Once people were shipped to Siberia to get lost; Jagr went there and found himself. Some 1, 500 miles west of Moscow in an industrial city that was closed to foreigners until the early 1990s, Jagr got his groove back this winter, scoring 16 goals with 23 assists in 32 games for Avangard Omsk of the Russian Superleague. He'll return to Omsk this fall if the NHL lockout goes on but prefers to imagine taking his good feelings back to New York. "Hopefully this is the last [world] tournament for me," Jagr said of the event, which usually runs concurrently with the Stanley Cup playoffs. "I hope the NHL will start, and I will play for the Rangers and we will go far in the playoffs."
If Jagr can find hockey happiness in Siberia, anything is possible. ?
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SI's All-Worlds Team