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February 16, 2007
  

Everybody Hates Jaromir
Jaromir Jagr is the most talented and polarizing player in the NHL. TFP Columnist Greg Wyshynski looks into the sources for the ever-growing Jagr backlash.
 

(WASHINGTON, DC) -- When I wrote The Fourth Period Magazine's cover story on Alex Ovechkin last year, I interviewed Elliot Segal, a morning shock jock on DC101 here in Washington. He's known around these parts for two things: His radio stunts — which include region-wide hunts for beer kegs painted in Easter colors every spring — and for being the most overtly notable Washington Capitals fan not named Leonsis.

What stuck with me after our conversation was how much bile was still in his system over Jaromir Jagr's three-year stint with the Caps.

"Everyone was so disgusted after the Jagr experience," he said. "I remember reading the interview after he was gone, talking about how he quit, about how he didn't like the system and wasn't going to play hard. It's not even that people spent a lot of money to watch him play — it's that people put a lot of emotions into wanting the team to do well. How dare you tell me you're quittin'."

Elliot’s not alone. When the New York Rangers come to D.C., the fans passionately jeer Jagr every time he touches the puck.

Google "Jagr sucks," and one of the first hits is a post from the Capitals' official message board that repeats that phrase 475 times -- in a row -- in a 36-point font. Finding a Caps fan walking down the street with a Jagr jersey is like scouring the Democratic Party for a pro-life war hawk who drives an SUV and eats endangered species for lunch — chances are they exist, but who really wants to expose themselves to that level of public scorn from their peers?

 

Trading for Jagr wasn't a mistake, because the deal with Pittsburgh still remains lopsided in the Capitals' favor.

(Has anyone seen Ross Lupaschuk or Michal Sivek lately?)

The mistake was owner Ted Leonsis deciding to sign Jagr to a seven-year, $77 million contract, a deal which blew up the franchise's economic model and forever changed the way the affable owner approaches building a team. Apprehensions born from the Jagr deal, more than any other economic concern, keep the Capitals closer to the salary floor than the cap.

Jagr is the most physically gifted player to compete in the National Hockey League in the last 25 years. He's never had the savvy and instincts of Mario or Gretzky, but they didn't have the unstoppable velocity Jagr had in his prime.

There are a lot of NHL 2.0 fans who believe Ovechkin reinvented the wheel last season with his meteoric game, his uncontainable power crossing the offensive blueline; they should ask their older brothers for a VHS of Jagr during his Penguin years. (By the way, kids, a "VHS" is that rectangular thing with the tape inside of it... you know, like the ones dad has in the top of his closet labeled with different girls' names?)

Ever hear of "Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin?" The hockey version of that goes, "Love the Play, Hate the Player." And for me, that's Jagr: A tremendously gifted athlete whose talent is overshadowed by a loathsome demeanor, on the ice and off.

It's not just me, and most of Washington, that feel this way — I believe it's also what cost Jagr the Hart Trophy last season. Here's a guy who scored 123 points for a team that plays in Manhattan. Here's a guy who predicted the Rangers, who Sports Illustrated claimed would be the worst in the NHL, would make the post-season for the first time in seven seasons and then carried them there.

How tarnished does your reputation have to be when you lose the Hart to a player three years removed from punching a cop in a bar fight?

This season, compare the fawning platitudes handed to Joe Sakic by hockey fans and media when he scored his 1,500th point to the relative apathy to Jagr's accomplishing the feat in fewer games. Both guys have benefited from playing with other superstars, both guys have won multiple Stanley Cups, both guys are destined for the Hall of Fame... yet can anyone deny that Sakic is more beloved than Jagr?

Sure, they still love Jaromir in Pittsburgh, where he'll always be the Pippen to Mario's Jordan and whose departure is considered a byproduct of pre-CBA financial inequity. But many other fans and media around the NHL feel the opposite. So what is it about Jagr that turns so many people off? Jealously? Xenophobia? That he cut the mullet? Those outlandish stories about high-stakes gambling (which prove that he might actually be more Jordan than Pippen)?

I decided to ask a Rangers fan, because Rangers fans intrinsically hate anyone who isn't on their team — especially when that player is a superstar for an Eastern Conference rival. Now that Jagr's been in MSG for parts of three seasons, how do the blue-seaters feel about this divisive Blueshirt?

I touched base with Scott from Hockeybird, a frequently brilliant Rangers Web site found at www.hockeybird.com. (Many of you are probably aware of my feelings toward anonymous hockey bloggers. So, acknowledging my hypocrisy, let's just pretend for the next few paragraphs that the name on his birth certificate is Scott Hockeybird, okay?)

Scott lived in Pittsburgh during Mario's early years, and thought Jagr played at an even higher level than Lemieux had. But after the Cup victories, Scott noticed something about No. 68.

"He would take huge portions of a game off," Scott said. "I watched him disappear at games I was at, only to see him turn it on and, in two minutes, win the game almost by himself. I'm sure everyone else saw this happen during Jagr's time in Washington."

Jagr's game has changed during his time with the Rangers, according to Scott. He's been impressed with Jagr's hustle, and also his attitude off the ice.

"I believe that JJ wants to play in NY and it's not just [about] the money," he said. "That's refreshing."

He acknowledges that there are Rangers fans who still aren't sold on Jagr.

"Some expect more out of him and this season they might have a point," he said, as Jagr has 21 goals in 56 games through Wednesday, Feb. 14. "There are also a group of fans who will hold him responsible for holding up the rebuild. While he's here in NY it does make sense that [Glen Sather] and Co. at least look at a Cup run. Some fans would rather not see a half-assed rebuild fail because of moves made in an attempt to get in the playoffs."

I asked Scott about Jagr's legacy when he hangs up the skates, and I think his answer perfectly captures the Dichotomy of this Jaromir: "Had he never played another game after he left Pittsburgh, I'd send him to the Hall... he's got that special talent. It's too bad he's not always hungry and always giving 100-percent. And that's not to say he doesn't ever try... last season was terrific and there have been some games this season when he's unstoppable."

Every superstar has his detractors — Peter Forsberg's too fragile, Brett Hull never played defense, Mike Modano couldn't lead Tkachuk to a buffet — and Jagr certainly has his.

But in his case, however, I think his attitude has overshadowed one of the singular talents of our generation, a truly extraordinary player who in many ways knows no equal.

His trifling character, real or perceived, eclipses his milestones and dazzling physical gifts.

Are you paying attention, Sidney?
 


Greg Wyshynski, also the Sports Editor of The Connect Newspaper, is a columnist for TheFourthPeriod.com, and the Senior Editor and Washington Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine. 
His book, "
Glow Pucks and 10-Cent Beer: The 101 Worst Ideas in Sports History" is now on sale.
 

 

 

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