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October 24, 2011
After an off-season overhaul diminished their attack, the Flyers brought Jaromir Jagr back from Siberia (literally), but the 39-year-old winger has provided much more than an instant offensive boost
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October 24, 2011

The Jagr Hockey School

After an off-season overhaul diminished their attack, the Flyers brought Jaromir Jagr back from Siberia (literally), but the 39-year-old winger has provided much more than an instant offensive boost

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Jagr also began living for something more than just himself, embracing both his political and spiritual sides. He became a vocal supporter of the Civic Democratic Party, the leading conservative political organization in the Czech Republic, and sometimes visited with an Orthodox Christian priest who used to stop by the Avangard dressing room before games. One game in particular, in October 2008, prompted Jagr to reexamine his priorites. He was chatting on the bench with teammate Alexei Cherepanov, when, without warning, the 19-year-old right wing went into cardiac arrest at Jagr's side, dying a few hours later of an inflamed heart muscle. "It makes you think your time should be special," Jagr says.

When his contract with Omsk was up, Jagr decided to make one last run at a Stanley Cup. The Penguins were the apparent front-runners. But his early conversations with club management, including one with team owner Lemieux, didn't impress him. "I thought the fans wanted me," Jagr says, "but I didn't know if the Penguins wanted me. I didn't want to be on the third and fourth line playing seven, eight minutes; I wanted to make a difference."

For the older, wiser Jagr, Philadelphia was a perfect landing spot. The Flyers' internal tensions dated back to the summer of 2009, when Holmgren commented publicly about the need for his club to be more disciplined off the ice—a subtle swipe at his players' partying ways. After Peter Laviolette was hired as coach in December '09, he wanted his players to temporarily make the team a Dry Island, asking them to sign a pledge to abstain from drinking. Both leading goal scorer Jeff Carter and captain Mike Richards were among those who did not sign, and an uneasy détente prevailed.

The Flyers rallied to reach the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, but last season their flaws began to show: They had invested in a roster deep in capable forwards but had scrimped on goaltenders. Philly's goalies had a whopping 3.33 GAA and an abysmal .889 save percentage in the 2011 postseason, and Laviolette had to pull his starter in the first three games of a second-round sweep by the Bruins.

On June 23 Holmgren signed Ilya Bryzgalov, a Vezina Trophy finalist two seasons ago with the Coyotes, for nine years and $51 million. To pare salary, he unloaded both Carter ($5.27 million per year) and Richards ($5.75 million per year) on the same day and let forward Ville Leino walk as a free agent. To make up for the 78 goals the Flyers lost, Holmgren acquired a couple of good young forwards from L.A. for Richards—Brayden Schenn and Wayne Simmonds—and signed Jagr to a bargain one-year deal for $3.3 million. "His size and patience give him so many options," says Pronger. "He's a great passer on the perimeter, and if he goes to the net with a step, you can't stop him. You can try to take his passing lane or his shooting lane, but there's no way you can take both." Adds Laviolette, "Our power play has a presence now. He opens things up for everyone else."

He has also become an acknowledged leader. "I really enjoy teaching the kids," says Jagr, and Van Riemsdyk, his 22-year-old linemate, has surveyed some of his evening classes. "He always puts the guy chasing him at the wrong angle," Van Riemsdyk says. "If he's close, he hunches forward and keeps his body down so you can never reach his arms or stick. He gives you the biggest obstacle to the puck before you even get to him. If you're coming from greater distance, he leans so [your momentum forces you to] roll off him."

It doesn't hurt that Jagr doesn't drink. His description of drunken friends criticizing other drunken friends sends him into fits of laughter. He is obviously comfortable setting a more sober tone in the dressing room. "They love him here," says Joe Mullen, a Flyers assistant and former Pittsburgh teammate. "Sometimes you have to step away from a place to find out how much it means to you."

Honeymoons die fast in Philadelphia, where the Flyers have lost in all six of their trips to the finals since the franchise's last Stanley Cup, in 1975. Ask Mike Schmidt, Donovan McNabb and Allen Iverson how fast the warm fuzzies can fade. Jagr never played more than 55 games during the shortened Russian schedule, and it will be hard for him not to wear down at his advanced age. But he insists that he is not concerned. He plans to finish his career one day with Kladno, the Czech team he also owns. "I'll play until 50," he says, "first in the Czech B League, then C League, then I'll make up my own league. As long as I can play on some rink, I'll be smiling."

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