There were precisely 138 trees on the family property when
Pittsburgh Penguins coach Kevin Constantine was growing up in
International Falls, Minn. They were all memorable to
Constantine--he had to mow around each one of them--but the ones
that left the most lasting impression on him were the Norwegian
pines. A Norwegian pine could grow tall and stately and lush
even in northern Minnesota's severe climate, but it could also
be spindly and temperamental if overgrown birch branches crowded
its space and weren't cut back. The Norwegian pine needs its own
sunlight. The Norwegian pine needs to stand alone.
Not that the Penguins are a Barbara Walters special or anything,
but if star Jaromir Jagr were a tree, Constantine says he would
definitely be a Norwegian pine. "That's how I see Jaromir this
year. Mario Lemieux was cut down in a way two years ago, and
Ronnie Francis was cut down after last year," says Constantine,
whose organization lost two of the NHL's top 10 career scorers
in consecutive seasons (Lemieux to retirement and Francis to the
Carolina Hurricanes as a free agent). "The sun shining on
Jaromir this season has done him a lot of good."
Jagr stands alone. Emboldened by his new role as captain and
oblivious to the uncertainty surrounding a franchise whose fate
rests in bankruptcy court, Jagr has emerged as the most dominant
offensive force in hockey and the leading candidate for the Hart
Trophy as the NHL's MVP. Last month Chicago Blackhawks assistant
coach Denis Savard proclaimed Jagr "the best player in the game
by a million miles," as if the subject were as closed as a team
meeting. Jagr rarely extends himself defensively or takes
face-offs or plays all 200 feet the way Colorado Avalanche
center Peter Forsberg does, although as a right wing Jagr isn't
necessarily expected to play all over the ice. He is not as
preternaturally tough as Philadelphia Flyers center Eric
Lindros, though with thickly muscled thighs, a generous backside
and phenomenal balance and reach, the 6'2", 228-pound Jagr is
the most difficult player in the world to knock off the puck. He
doesn't work quite as diligently at self-improvement as Anaheim
Mighty Ducks wing Paul Kariya, but no one is tougher to drag off
the ice at the end of practice. Through Sunday, Jagr's 40 goals
and 82 assists put him 23 points ahead of the Mighty Ducks'
Teemu Selanne in the scoring race--the winning margin in that
race could be the widest since 1990-91, when Wayne Gretzky
outscored Brett Hull by 32 points--but it is not so much what he
does for himself as what he does for other Penguins that
substantiates Savard's claim.
Jagr has turned his regular center, Martin Straka, who has
offensive flair but is just two years removed from playing on
the fourth line for the Florida Panthers, into an All-Star. Jagr
has spearheaded forward Jan Hrdina's Calder Trophy run by
collaborating on 21 of the rookie's 40 points at week's end. He
has transformed forward Kip Miller, who had 14 goals in parts of
six NHL seasons and who has played semi-regularly this season
with Jagr, into a 19-goal scorer--the starkest example of what
happens when a journeyman goes from riding the pines to riding
Constantine's metaphorical pine. "Jaromir should get a cut of
every contract of everyone who plays with him before signing a
new deal because half the money they're getting is due to him,"
Constantine says, despite his occasional differences with his
star. "He makes it tricky for this organization. We have to ask
ourselves how good the guy is. Is he good because he plays with
Jagr? Not taking anything anyway from Marty Straka, who's a
helluva player, but none of the guys Jaromir plays with have a
time-tested history of being major talents." There is no one
riding shotgun for Jagr the way Joe Sakic does for Forsberg,
John LeClair does for Lindros or Selanne does for Kariya.
Pittsburgh has several forwards with a clue, but it also has
more extras than there were in Titanic.
"There are probably four ways to play Jagr, all of them wrong,"
Montreal assistant coach Dave King says. "He's the toughest
player in hockey to devise a game plan against." Whenever Jagr
was on the ice in the Penguins' first-round playoff series
against the Canadiens last year, Montreal used three defensemen,
which "limited" him to four goals and five assists in six games.
The Buffalo Sabres often try shadowing him with center Michael
Peca, but virtually no checkers are smart enough or strong
enough to contain Jagr, easily the NHL's best one-on-one player.
"I've seen him on a lot of breakaways on TV," Ottawa Senators
goaltender Damian Rhodes says, "and I've never seen the same
Chicago played its top offensive line against Jagr two weeks ago
in the hope that he would have to worry about defense, a theory
shot full of pucks when Jagr had a three-point night. The
Senators in effect tried playing him 10-on-1 in a pair of games
last week, using their two best defensive five-man groups
against his line. "You have to play two units against him,"
Ottawa assistant Mike Murphy says. "Because he's so aerobically
strong and knows how to conserve his strength until he sees he
can make something happen, his shifts tend to be long." Any
other bright ideas? Jagr had six points in those matches,
including two third-period goals in a 3-3 tie last Thursday
against the Eastern Conference's best defensive team.
"When I'm feeling good," Jagr says without a trace of boast, "I
can do anything on the ice I want."
The man who stands alone is sitting alone in the Pittsburgh
locker room after a recent game-day practice, wearing gym shorts
and the self-satisfied smile of someone who knows something the
rest of the world doesn't. He is ready for his interview. During
his first eight seasons in the NHL, the 27-year-old Jagr, a
Czech, often spoke in throwaway lines, telegraphic quips in a
language that still makes him uncomfortable. He often left the
unfortunate impression that there wasn't much under his curls.
In fact, he is intuitively wise. He is so astute he often relays
information to Constantine on matchups and adjustments as
quickly as an assistant coach in the press box. Jagr still is
fearful of revealing too much to the press--"I act like I'm
cocky to protect myself, to not let people get too close," he
says--but now that he is the captain, sit-still interviews are
his department. "I am not hiding anymore," he says.
Jagr as captain would have been a laughable notion a few years
ago. He was too flighty and distracted, so emotional he would
weep on the bench if a coach didn't send him out on the power
play. Jagr was more MacArthur Park than General MacArthur, an
inscrutable pastiche of half-finished thoughts and schoolboy
whimsy instead of a leader of men. Then he returned to
Pittsburgh last fall from his usual summer in the Czech
Republic. "You could see right away something was different,"
says Penguins defenseman Jiri Slegr, a close friend of Jagr's.
"He was a lot calmer."
Something happened to him at home in Kladno, something he says
was spiritual though not religious. Jagr reported to training
camp and passed his metaphysical right away. He will not divulge
details other than to say the new serenity was the result of his
finding numerous sources of energy in the universe and channeling
them into his body. Considering how dominant Jagr has been this
season, other players should be clicking the remote in search of
"A lot of people tell me, 'You've changed so much, you've become
a leader,' but in my opinion I've always had that in me," Jagr
says. "You just have to keep learning until your time comes.
Yes, I have more responsibility. I don't do those crazy things I
did before. Then I didn't really care about anything. If I was
supposed to be home at 2:30, and I wasn't there at 2:30, I
didn't really worry about it. When I lived with a girl, she
didn't like that too much, but I didn't care. I didn't like that
about myself, so I tried to change. And I've tried to change
inside the [dressing] room. Before there was always someone more
important than me here. Now I feel like I should be the guy."
Jagr has not shown his leadership with withering stares, as the
Vancouver Canucks' Mark Messier has done throughout his career,
or simply through exemplary play, as Raymond Bourque has done
with the Boston Bruins, but with game-saving performances and
displays of dedication to the team. He has done most of his
leading in public--after Pittsburgh squandered a 2-0 lead
against Buffalo on Feb. 2, Jagr stood up on the bench in the
third period and said, "We're not losing," and then had a hand
in the next three goals in a 5-3 victory--but the private
moments linger. After January's All-Star Game in Tampa, Jagr was
the only player in the World Team locker room riding a
stationary bike. The postgame party could wait. His commitment
to himself, and by extension the Penguins, couldn't.
Of course the C change in Jagr has been no more dramatic than
the team's transformation with Constantine behind the bench the
last two seasons. Under former coach Ed Johnston there was more
good-humored anarchy than in a Marx Brothers film, but the
holiday ended when general manager Craig Patrick hired
Constantine, a coach committed to harnessing a fire-wagon team
and teaching it discipline. The conflicts between Jagr and
Constantine might be nothing more than contrasting world views:
Jagr thinks if he plays well, the team will do well; and
Constantine thinks the success of the team within a system will
translate to individual success. Regardless, Jagr has been slow
to warm to Constantine. The fact that both have fared
well--Pittsburgh remains a playoff team despite its loss of
Lemieux and Francis and its injury-riddled roster, and Jagr has
had two of his three best statistical seasons under
Constantine--has mitigated their differences, but tensions have
erupted over ice time and the power play. Early in the season
the coaches wanted Jagr stationed around the goal line on
five-on-three power plays instead of wedded to his favorite spot
along the right-half boards. Jagr resisted. Eventually
Constantine let Jagr try it his way, but Pittsburgh has done
little better, converting only 10% of the time with a two-man
advantage over the course of the season. "The team was kind of
freewheeling, and then he comes in," Jagr says of Constantine,
who had a 55-78-24 record in nearly 2 1/2 seasons as coach of
the San Jose Sharks. "It's like if you live in Florida and
suddenly you go to Siberia. If you don't stop in central Europe
first, the change can be a shock. Of course you're going to
complain. You want to stay in Florida. He wants you in Siberia.
This year it's not been Siberia, but close. I'm in Moscow now."
"Jaromir's a much more dynamic person on the team right now,"
Constantine says. "It's one thing to get your points and another
thing to make your team better. The great players have to figure
out how to give up a little bit of their individuality, maybe
lose five percent of their game to make their teams 20 percent
better. He's figured that out, but he has to prove it
completely. The playoffs will be the test."
The challenge seems daunting for a team with a beaten-up defense,
but Jagr realizes he might have to give up even more of himself.
Now that he's wearing the C, he just might be able to do that.
B/W PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY NICK CARDILLICCHIO
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA
COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT Tough job Peca employs hands-on defense against Jagr, the NHL's best one-on-one player.
Second to One
Since Jaromir Jagr (above) entered the NHL as an 18-year-old in
1990-91, only Wayne Gretzky has scored more regular-season
points than the Penguins' flashy forward. With 122 points this
season through Sunday, Jagr was on his way to winning his third
Art Ross Trophy (his second in a row) as the league's top
scorer. Here are the NHL's top 10 scorers this decade.
PLAYER TEAM(S) POINTS SINCE
Wayne Gretzky Kings, Blues, Rangers 874
Jaromir Jagr Penguins 857
Adam Oates Blues, Bruins, Capitals 820
Joe Sakic Nordiques/Avalanche 809
Steve Yzerman Red Wings 786
Brett Hull Blues, Stars 778
Mark Recchi Flyers, Penguins, Canadiens 773
Pierre Turgeon Sabres, Islanders, Canadiens, Blues 757
Theoren Fleury Flames, Avalanche 749
Ron Francis Whalers, Penguins, Hurricanes 734
"There are probably four ways to play Jagr," says the Canadiens'
King, "all of them wrong."