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Jaromir Jagr had a special request for Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren when he signed in Philadelphia as a free agent in July. No problem, Holmgren figured. Even after a three-year hiatus in Russia, Jagr was still the NHL's active scoring leader by more than 250 points, so the 39-year-old Czech had earned the right to some preferential treatment. But what would he want? A leased car? A block of rinkside tickets at the Wells Fargo Center? Two-for-one cheesesteaks at Pat's? Nope. Just a key, please. Jagr needed access to the team's practice facility in Voorhees, N.J., so that he could pop in at night for some extra work whenever the mood struck. He might shoot with a weighted stick to keep his wrists in shape, or skate with a weighted vest to keep his legs in shape, or kick around a soccer ball while he recharged between drills. "Because when it's really fun for me," Jagr explains, "it doesn't even feel like work. Practice, games, whatever. I don't see the hours pass, you know. I'm just playing."
His Philly teammates have already begun to trickle into Voorhees at night for classes—or is it recess?—at what grizzled left wing Jody Shelley admiringly calls the Jagr Hockey School. "He loves hockey more than any guy in the room," says Shelley, a 10-year NHL veteran and one of Jagr's first enrollees. "Some guys want to go out, some read books, some watch movies. He just wants to be on the ice. He's really different than I thought he'd be, just a great guy to be around for every single one of us."
Through a 3--2 overtime loss at home to the Kings last Saturday, the Flyers have opened 3-0-1, picked up seven of a possible eight points and put everyone in the East on notice they they're again a contender for the Stanley Cup. Jagr, playing on the top line alongside center Claude Giroux and left wing James van Riemsdyk, had assists in three of the four games while adding an element of danger to the Philly power play. In the first period against Los Angeles, he held the puck deep in the offensive zone near the goal line, drew two defenders, then fed center Danny Brière at the opposite corner of the net for an easy tap-in. The Flyers appear to have found in Jagr both what they expected—a desperately needed gust of skill for a depleted attack—and what they could have never guessed: a source of joyful purpose in what had been a damaged locker room.
There were few reasons for Philadelphia to think that Jagr could play a significant off-ice role. In his previous NHL incarnation, he was the mullet-haired kid from Kladno who drove too fast (his license was suspended briefly in 2001 for too many speeding tickets), bet too much (a decade ago he owed more than $500,000 to an Internet gambling company) and was spoiled by early success (a pair of Cups in his first two seasons with the Penguins as a teenage sidekick to Mario Lemieux). "You think every year will be like that," Jagr says, sitting on a bench in the practice facility's dressing room.
He was one of the most decorated players in the NHL during his 17 brilliant seasons, from 1990 to 2008—winning a Hart Trophy and five scoring titles, and earning seven first-team All-Star selections—but was never able to get back to the Stanley Cup finals. Jagr advanced past the second round of the playoffs just once in his last 10 NHL seasons, a stretch that included extended stints with the Capitals and the Rangers. And when his teams came up short, the brunt of the fans' disappointment usually fell on the superstar who sometimes moped, didn't backcheck, wouldn't use his 6'3", 240-pound frame to bodycheck and had an uneasy relationship with the press. "[His] last three or four years [in the league]," says Flyers captain Chris Pronger, "it looked like he was checking in and checking out."
"Some people said, 'He doesn't smile,'" Jagr says. "[But] to some people, you laugh too much [and it's] like you're not serious. It's a different country, different language, different humor. You are who you are."
Jagr spent his final three-plus NHL seasons in New York, setting franchise records with 54 goals and 123 points in 2005--06, and scoring 15 points in 10 playoff games in 2008. But he felt the Rangers could have done more to bolster the club around him, and he resented the way they dragged their feet during contract talks in '07--08.
During the NHL lockout of 2004--05, Jagr had played 32 games with Avangard in the Siberian city of Omsk. Avangard was offering him a two-year, $14 million contract with an option for a third year, and the money was also close to tax-free. The Rangers and the Penguins, meanwhile, were offering one-year deals for comparable money, while the Oilers submitted a one-year deal at $8 million. By terms of the NHL's labor agreement, any player 35 or over who signs a multiyear agreement counts against the team's salary cap for the length of his contract, even if he retires before the deal ends, which is why older players usually sign for only a year at a time. But Jagr felt his performance and conditioning had earned the longer commitment he could find only in Omsk.
So on July 4, 2008, he abandoned North America for life in the KHL. Dostoyevsky had once been exiled to Omsk; now Jagr was doing it to himself. "It wasn't only money," he says of his decision. "Maybe I was looking for something. Russia changed me. Not much pressure. Not many distractions. Not many rules. I could follow my own, and I took them seriously."
In his self-imposed isolation, Jagr rededicated himself to his game. On off days, he would come home from practice at 2 p.m., take a nap, wake up without setting an alarm or looking at a watch and then drive back to the rink in the evening. "Sometimes there would be teammates, sometimes just some kids," he recalls. "We'd get on the ice, then play some soccer in the hallway, some basketball, then more ice, like you do when you're a kid. It was a great workout, but it was really fun too. And it was only seven minutes away. There was no traffic in winter because most people couldn't start their cars in the cold."