The 1980s were a simple time, a decade when i's, not coms, were
dotted, when a young Oakland A's slugger (Jose Canseco, not Mark
McGwire) looked to be the next Babe Ruth, and when a total of
eight goals in an NHL game was the norm, not the piddling 5.49
per game so far this season. Between 1980-81 and 1988-89 a dozen
players had seasons in which they amassed 150 or more points; in
the 1990s, when the league imported even more slick forwards
from Europe and immediately forgot how to use them, only three
players reached that plateau. The rugged player of the '80s was
transformed into the system drone of the '90s, which is why
Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Jaromir Jagr, the most
self-reliant player in hockey, is the game's biggest anomaly.
With 32 goals and 39 assists in 39 games through Sunday, Jagr was
close to a 150-point pace and was leading the league in both
categories, something not achieved outright since Wayne Gretzky
did it 13 years ago. Night after night Jagr finds not only open
ice but also the inherent joy of his sport. He dances and
dazzles, getting seven points against the hapless New York
Islanders in one game, derailing the powerful Detroit Red Wings
with a goal and an assist in the next, and, in the match after
that, twisting New Jersey Devils checker Claude Lemieux into a
pretzel by putting the puck through Lemieux's legs at the
Penguins' blue line and creating a three-on-two. Jagr, with
sturdy haunches that make him all but impossible to bump off the
puck, puts on That '80s Show for almost 82 games a season. He's
setting hockey back more than 10 years.
"The game in the 1980s was played with the puck," Toronto Maple
Leafs goalie Glenn Healy says. "In the '90s it became a game of
often willingly losing possession, of dumping the puck in and
moving the battle to other areas, such as behind the net and in
the corners. Jagr is an '80s player because he holds on to the
puck and tries to make plays. He won't give it up until there is
absolutely no other play, which isn't often, because he has the
ability to make something out of nothing, even a one-on-three. As
a goalie you're always aware of Jagr's presence on the ice."
Jagr's scoring rampage in an era of constipated hockey has ended
debate about who is the NHL's best player. "With no disrespect to
the other guys," says New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko, a
15-year veteran, "you've got [Eric] Lindros, [Paul] Kariya,
[Teemu] Selanne and [Peter] Forsberg here, and Jagr head and
shoulders above them, up there." That assessment was implicitly
endorsed by Gretzky last April when he blessed Jagr with a
private word during the Great One's retirement ceremony. "Maybe
that's why I play good right now," Jagr said last week, his face
crinkling in merriment as he sat at his locker. "I don't want to
make Wayne a liar."
Jagr doesn't demur on the subject of his stature, and he offers
no disclaimers about good bounces or lucky breaks or other locker
room lies. If he's not an aw-shucks guy, neither is he
chest-thumpingly vain. At almost 28 years of age, with three
scoring titles and a Hart Trophy behind him, he has been freed
from polite pretense. "I got something," says Jagr, whose career
1.33 points-per-game average ranks fifth among players with at
least 500 games. "I got a gift from God or wherever. Not to use
it and enjoy it, that would be a sin. Maybe 10 years later I
would look back and say, 'Damn, I was so stupid.' I don't want to
feel bad about what I have, which is what is motivating me to be
the best. This is a big responsibility. Mario [Lemieux, the
Pittsburgh owner and former star] and those other guys gave me
[two Stanley Cups] when I was young. I wasn't a big part of those
teams [in 1991 and '92]. That's why I call it a gift. Now it is
my time to help somebody else win a Cup."
Although the Penguins still look like a one-round-and-out team,
their odds of advancing in the postseason improved immeasurably
when Herb Brooks replaced Kevin Constantine as coach on Dec. 9.
Since then Pittsburgh had vaulted to sixth in the Eastern
Conference by going 10-5 through Sunday. Brooks has lightened the
atmosphere in the dressing room and discarded the defensive bias
that in recent years had put the Penguins simultaneously in the
playoffs and in a foul mood. In his last three games under
Constantine, Jagr had his worst stretch of the season: a total of
one assist. General manager Craig Patrick says the firing
occurred because Constantine had lost the respect of his players,
but one player is conspicuously more equal than others in
Pittsburgh. Jagr, the captain, never hid his differences with
Constantine, whose gravest mistake was not that he gave structure
to hockey's most casual team but that he denied Jagr what he
craves most: freedom.
"Freedom is the best thing you can have," Jagr says. "You want
total freedom, you have to be the best. Kings. They have the most
freedoms, right? If you're second, you don't have total freedom,
because then you have to listen to the [person who is] first.
Freedom to do anything you want is a big bonus."
Jagr, a strapping 6'2", 234-pounder, will take his liberties
small. He wants the freedom to get the occasional day off from
practice, as he did on Jan. 4 when his legs ached; the freedom to
have the occasional middling game, as he did the next night
against the Devils; the freedom not to wear a helmet at the
game-day skate, as he did last Friday morning (he was the only
Penguin to go topless) before picking up two assists against the
At the skate Jagr showed off his privilege and his hair. He lost
his trademark ringlets last summer in a series of haircuts that
began in Prague and ended in Milan, where Jagr strolled into a
salone da barbiere and asked a barber to make him look Italian.
That there was a big fuss over the haircut in NHL precincts was
not that surprising, given that hair often is an issue with
mythological heroes such as Samson. Or Gretzky, who had more 'dos
than Hillary Clinton. Before submitting to the scissors, Jagr
consulted with his agent, Mike Barnett, several times. The
haircut wasn't about Jagr's growing up. It was about doing
something for the hell of it, a part of his personality that
seems forgotten in recent portrayals of the new, mature Jagr.
If tangible proof of Jagr's growth were necessary, it wasn't
lying on the barber's floor. Rather, it was paraded during Game 6
of Pittsburgh's first-round playoff against New Jersey last May.
A limping Jagr, who had missed the previous four games with a
groin injury, scored two goals, including the winner in overtime.
In that match he elevated himself from blessed talent to
extraordinary player, one capable of bequeathing a gift such as
the Stanley Cup. Jagr was then, and is now, a cut above.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA