When New Jersey winger Jaromir Jagr stepped onto the ice last night at CONSOL Energy Center, I was hoping against hope that the partisan crowd would let bygones be bygones and treat the future Hall-of-Famer with some dignity and class.
Alas, an all-too predictable chorus of boos rained down from the rafters whenever Jagr touched the puck. Rough treatment for arguably the second-greatest player in franchise history, one who scored so many big goals—and created so many luminous memories—they could literally fill the Mon Valley.
I’m as guilty as the next person for holding a grudge. I’ve written some uncomplimentary things about the Czech Republic native. As recently as December 29, 2011, when Jagr scored his first goal here as a member of the hated Flyers—and then had the temerity to salute the crowd—I seethed with anger.
Yet time has a way of healing all wounds. I wish to bury the hatchet and appreciate Jagr for what he was (and in some ways, still is)—one of the most singular talents in the history of the game.
For me, the first sign of Jagr’s greatness—and uncanny flair for the dramatic—occurred during the 1991 Patrick Division Semifinals. The Penguins lost to New Jersey in the series opener and barely managed to push Game 2 to overtime. A second defeat would have all but dashed the Pens’ Stanley Cup hopes.
With his team in dire straits, the “Kladno Kid” stepped forward with an absolute gem of a goal. Nine minutes into the extra frame the 19-year-old rookie steamed into the Devils’ zone, only to be met head-on by John MacLean just off the right sideboards.
Displaying the remarkable puck control that would become his hallmark, Jagr fended off the Devils’ winger with his left arm while stickhandling with his right. After breaking loose from MacLean, No. 68 cut across the slot while playing a high-stakes game of chicken with goalie Chris Terreri. When Terreri flinched, Jagr coolly flipped the puck into the net. The retractable dome nearly blew off the old arena.
“It was a great goal by Jaromir,” gushed teammate Kevin Stevens.
My second most memorable Jagr goal took place during the Patrick Division Finals the following spring. The Penguins—minus big guns Mario Lemieux and Joey Mullen—were locked in a titanic struggle with the Rangers, the odds-on favorites to win the Cup. With the series tied 2-2 and the Pens trailing 2-1 in the pivotal Game 5, “Jags” took charge.
After beating John Vanbiesbrouck on a penalty shot to knot the score, Jagr flew into the New York zone with five minutes to play. When rugged Jeff Beukeboom stepped up to challenge, the mullet-topped winger made a ballistic move to the net, turning the Rangers’ defenseman into a pillar of salt. Jagr ripped the puck past a stunned Vanbiesbrouck for the game-winner, irretrievably shifting the series in favor of the black and gold.
Memorable goal number three—and perhaps his most brilliant—occurred during Game 1 of the ’92 Stanley Cup Finals. With the Pens trailing 4-3, Jagr stickhandled through virtually the entire Chicago team before slipping the puck between goalie Ed Belfour’s pads. The Penguins rallied to beat the Blackhawks and never looked back.
“That was probably the greatest goal I’ve ever seen,” Lemieux said afterward. “Jaromir’s probably going to be the best player in the world in a couple of years.”
Mario proved to be prophetic. Five Art Ross Trophies and a Hart Memorial Trophy firmly established Jagr as one of the game’s all-time greats.
Let’s hope we, as Penguins fans, learn to embrace that legacy.