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The KID From Kladno

By achieving NHL stardom, the Penguins' Jaromir Jagr has realized the dream he had as a youth in Czechoslovakia

When Jaromir Jagr was 12 years old—long before he was a shaggy-maned, spotlight-nabbing heartthrob of the Pittsburgh Penguins; before he had signed a three-year, $3.8 million contract or been invited with his Stanley Cup-winning teammates to the White House; heck, before he had ever left Kladno, Czechoslovakia—he kept a certain photograph in his grade book at school. Jagr had cut it out of a magazine and hidden it there, sneaking peeks at the picture, knowing there would be hell to pay if the teacher caught him with it.

One day, sure enough, the teacher picked up Jagr's grade book to write down the score he had made on a test and found the photograph. Are you crazy, Jaromir? Take it out, she told him. So he did. But as soon as class was over, Jagr put the photograph of Ronald Reagan, president of the United States, back into his grade book. Jagr admired Reagan because he was somebody who stood up to the Communists, who had identified the Soviet Union as the "evil empire" that Jagr's family knew it to be. Month after month the teacher continued to find that photo of Reagan in Jagr's grade book, continued to admonish him, but she never confiscated it. And every time, when class was over, Jagr would slip it back into its place.

"In school we were always taught the Soviet doctrine," Jagr says. "The U.S.A. was bad and wanted war. Russia was our friend and was preventing the United States from bombing us. Even my father didn't tell me the truth, because he was afraid I'd say something in school that would get us into trouble. But my grandmother, she told me the truth."

Jagr's grandmother Jarmila told the boy about the first Jaromir Jagr, his grandfather and her husband. He was a farmer. When the Communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, the grandmother said, they appropriated all the privately owned farms. They collectivized his grandfather's fields and three quarters of his livestock. They left him with the house, barn and yard that the family still lives in today—Jagr, his grandmother, his parents and his uncle. (Jagr's sister, Jitka, is now married and lives 10 minutes away.) Then the authorities told Jagr's grandfather that he had to labor in the cooperative farm for free. His grandfather refused to work for those people who had stolen his farm. So he was thrown into jail, and he remained there for more than two years.

Jaromir Jagr, the hockey player, never knew Jaromir Jagr, the farmer. The grandson was born in 1972. The grandfather died in 1968, by coincidence during the glorious days of the Czechoslovakian freedom movement known as the Prague Spring. "He never knew that the Russians came back," Jagr says. But, of course, they did come back, and Jagr's grandmother made sure that he knew how, on Aug. 20-21, 1968, the troops rolled through Czechoslovakia to squash that fledgling movement in less than 48 hours.

Jagr never forgot. That is why he admired Reagan. Why he has an American flag in his bedroom and two decals of Old Glory on the windshield of his car in Kladno. And why the young Penguin star, the flamboyant and seemingly carefree spirit, handsome, athletic and rich, wears number 68, after the Prague Spring of 1968, the spring that his grandfather died.

Zimní (Winter) Stadium, Kladno. A large, nearly toothless woman is making her way down the aisle, past scrunched-up knees and wooden benches, eyeing Jagr, her helpless prey. He sees her coming but cannot, or will not, escape.

"This is my idol," the old woman, speaking Czech, says. "I cried when he went to America. I could not have liked him more if I had given birth to him. Why? Because he's tough and fearless. If I would not be so shy, I would kiss him."

Jagr signs an autograph for the 75-year-old Kladno native, who suddenly loses her shyness and gives him a peck on the cheek. "Sometimes I watch him on satellite," the woman says.

Czechoslovakia's revolution of 1989 enabled Jagr to fulfill his lifelong dream of playing in the NHL without having to defect. When the Penguins made Jagr their first draft choice in June 1990, the fifth player taken overall, he was in Vancouver for the proceedings, the first time a Czechoslovakian player had attended the NHL draft with his government's blessings. As a result, Jagr, now 20, can return to his family in the summertime, to the farmhouse near Kladno where he grew up.

Today, a month before the NHL training camps open, he is watching his former team, Poldi Kladno, play its first preseason game. He has been skating with these guys in the mornings, getting in shape for his third NHL season, which he says he is prepared to sit out if the Penguins do not renegotiate a contract that will pay him just $200,000 a year for the next two years. It will not happen, but for now he sounds serious.

"Eric Lindros may be good player, but he is not 15 times better player than me," Jagr says passionately, his English rusty after a summer at home. The negotiations, apparently, are going badly. "——Patrick," Jagr says, referring to Penguin general manager Craig Patrick. "If they don't want to sign me, they don't need me. I don't consider Pittsburgh my team anymore. I love the fans; Pittsburgh has great people. But if they have no money, trade me. I want to be traded where there's beaches."

Hmm. Tampa Bay? San Jose? Los Angeles? Might be a long time between Stanley Cups, he is told, if Patrick accommodates him. "I have two Stanley Cup rings," Jagr shrugs. "I don't need more rings. I just need money and beaches and girls."

As with many of Jagr's pronouncements, this one is followed by a quick, wide, guileless smile. He knows how outrageous what he has just said sounds, and Jagr couldn't care less. He is at home now, the biggest fish in Kladno's pond, psychologically feeling his oats. He is also blowing smoke. Despite the wild-and-crazy-guy image he likes to promote, Jagr is, at heart, a homeboy. He has invited his mother, Anna, to share his house in Pittsburgh this season. Kladno's nightlife? "Life is dead here," Jagr says. He speaks of Prague, a bustling, teeming city just 35 minutes away, as if it were perched near the end of the earth. For amusement, Jagr spends his evenings playing electronic roulette and slot machines at the local video casino. "They get mad because they know I make money in America, then I come and make money on their machines," he boasts.

When Jagr was 15, he was already playing for Poldi Kladno, which plays in the best hockey league in Czechoslovakia. At 16, Jagr was making more money than his father, who had a good administrative job at Kladno's coal mine. Jaromir had always been something of a hockey prodigy. When he was six, he was practicing with three separate age groups, getting three times as much ice time as his peers. "My father's idea," Jagr says. "When I played against other six-year-olds, I was great. When I played against 10-year-olds, I was average. He wanted me to play where I was average."

Jagr's father, also named Jaromir, carefully channeled his only son's talent. After school he played street hockey with the boy in the dirt yard between the house and the barn, scattering the dozens of chickens that Anna kept in the yard, sending them scurrying for shelter beneath the broken-down tractors and wagons. Jagr's father used an axle off one of those old tractors to craft a homemade set of barbells for his son, somehow fashioning round slabs of iron into matching pairs of weights. A steamer trunk covered with towels served as his bench, and when young Jaromir was lifting, building up his muscular frame toward its present 6'2" and 208 pounds, he took inspiration from a pair of posters he had taped to the walls. One poster, circa 1982, was of Wayne Gretzky. The other was of Martina Navratilova, the Czechoslovakian tennis star whose name was never mentioned in the local newspapers because she had defected. Her image fueled Jagr's dreams. Back then, for a Czechoslovakian to play in the NHL, which was the dream of every boy who played hockey, one had to defect.

When Jagr was 17, he became the youngest member of the Czechoslovakian national team, which was one of the best hockey teams in the world. He scratched number 68 on the back of his helmet and skated on a line with two other young Czechoslovakian stars destined for the NHL—Bobby Holik, now with the New Jersey Devils, and Robert Reichel of the Calgary Flames. In the 1990 world championships they faced a makeshift Canadian team of established NHL stars, including Paul Coffey, Steve Yzerman and John Cullen. "We beat those guys," says Jagr. That's when he knew for certain he was good enough to play in the NHL.

But did he have the stomach for it? Living away from home? Playing an 80-game schedule in a strange culture, without friends or the language skills so vitally important to make new friends? "My parents told me that I should stay here and finish school," says Jagr. "But I said I want to play the best hockey in the world."

His rookie season was harder than he had imagined. The Penguins set him up with an English tutor—eight hours a day for four weeks before training camp—and found a Czechoslovakian family in Pittsburgh he could live with. But as the season progressed, Jagr grew increasingly miserable. He missed his family and friends. He never went out. All he had was hockey, and verbal communication was so limited between Jagr and the coaching staff that when the coaches tried to explain to him the rule about the maximum curve allowed on a stick, Jagr thought they were yelling at him again for not shooting enough.

On Dec. 13, recognizing his young star was "slipping farther and farther away," Patrick made a deal with Calgary for a veteran Czechoslovakian player, Jiri Hrdina. "Jags was really down low when I got there," recalls Hrdina, who is back with the Flames now as a scout. "He wasn't going to go home or anything, but he felt alone. I could talk to him about his problems. He's a very smart guy for his age. Very unusual to have the goals he does. He wants to be the best player in the game."

Jagr responded with a strong second half, scoring 37 of his 57 points in the last 40 games of the season. In the playoffs he led all rookies in scoring, with three goals and 10 assists. He scored the overtime series winner in the Penguins' seven-game divisional semifinals against New Jersey, and Pittsburgh eventually went on to win its first Stanley Cup. Nice numbers, to be sure, but no one was putting Jagr's name in the same sentence with Mario Lemieux's.

That all changed last season. More comfortable with the language and more confident with his talent, Jagr played with such flair that someone figured out that Jaromir was an anagram for Mario Jr. His regular-season totals—32 goals and 37 assists in 70 games—weren't nearly as spectacular on paper as they appeared in the flesh. Screaming down the right wing, his long dark hair flopping behind his helmet, the lefthanded-shooting Jagr would time and again beat both defensemen like a pair of rented mules.

"He's a different type of player than the league has seen in a long time," says Scotty Bowman, who coached the Penguins last season and is now the team's director of player development and recruitment. "He has a lot of Frank Mahovlich in him. His skating style and strength make him almost impossible to stop one-on-one. A lot of big guys play with their sticks tight to their bodies and don't use that reach to their advantage like Jaromir does."

Bowman's difficulty last season was finding Jagr enough ice time. The Penguins started the season overloaded at right wing, with Joe Mullen, a former 50-goal scorer, and Mark Recchi, who scored 40 goals in '90-91, in addition to Jagr. "Jagr really got shortchanged on the power play," Bowman admits. Only four of Jagr's 32 goals came with a man advantage. "It got to be a problem. He would come to me, very upset. 'I don't play here next year. Too many stars here. I got agent of Brett Hull and Wayne Gretzky. I go to San Jose. I be a star.' That's one of the reasons we traded Recchi."

With Recchi dealt to Philadelphia late in the season and Mullen injured, Jagr's ice time increased dramatically in the playoffs. If it hadn't, it's doubtful the Penguins would have repeated as Stanley Cup champs. When Lemieux had his left hand slashed and broken by Adam Graves of the New York Rangers in the divisional finals, Jagr simply took over for his hockey idol. In Game 5, with the series 2-2, Jagr scored on a penalty shot, then won the game with five minutes left by undressing defenseman Jeff Beukeboom before tallying the game-winner. Jagr finished off the Rangers in Game 6, again scoring the game-winning goal, and followed that by scoring in overtime against the Boston Bruins in the first game of the conference finals. That marked his third game-winning goal in a row and his fourth of the playoffs.

But his most sensational goal of the postseason came against the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Cup finals. With five minutes remaining and the Penguins trailing 4-3, Jagr was cornered along the boards with the puck. From a standstill he beat one, two, three Hawk defenders while wriggling to the net and slid in the game-tying backhand. Then, with 13 seconds left, Lemieux scored the game-winner, and the Penguins went on to sweep the Blackhawks.

Afterward, Lemieux seemed to be grooming his successor. "Jaromir's probably going to be the best player in the world in a couple of years," he said.

In style, though, Jagr is something much different from Lemieux. "When Mario gets the puck, he's always thinking, Where can I put it?" says Bowman. "He'll pass the puck off and get himself in a better situation to score than he was in. When Jaromir gets the puck, he's always thinking, Where can I go with it? He reminds me of Maurice Richard in that way. They both played the off-wing, and both had so many moves I don't think either knew which moves they were going to do until they did them. Totally unpredictable."

"I just play," Jagr says. He doesn't even like to know the name of the defenseman he is going against. "If I see Chris Chelios is there, I think, I can't beat him. And I won't beat him. Better I don't notice. When you go one-on-one with good defenseman, you do same things as against bad defenseman. Sometimes, you get lucky."

Sometimes. And sometimes you get smart. Like when Jagr, the first week of training camp, amicably signed his new contract with the Penguins, saving himself from his death wish made last summer in Kladno: to be traded from the Stanley Cup champions to some cellar dweller on the seashore. Beach purgatory. Jagr's still young. He will learn. If he wants to be known as the best hockey player in the world, two rings times two are not enough.





Remarkable balance is one reason Jagr has become an instant force in the NHL.



Cup Scenes: A 'Long Live Jagr' banner (above), a buss from Jagr in return.



[See caption above.]



An autograph for an elderly admirer in Zimní Stadium earned Jagr a kiss.



Jagr's room back home is bare but for a reminder of his cherised dream.



Jagr (under No. 5) and his Pen pals were bowled over by last June's Cup win.