Of the scores of luminary-to-downright immortal athletes that have donned the black and the gold of Pittsburgh’s three major professional sports teams, arguably none have had as complicated a relationship with this city’s fans as former Penguins standout Jaromir Jagr.
He has gone from a near-worshipped kid from Kladno to Pittsburgh’s Prodigal Son who only returns to town in other team’s sweaters. Booing him is a cottage industry here and it’s a safe bet that the Consol Energy Center crowd will be full throat for his every shift tomorrow night when he visits with his Boston Bruins.
But long before spats with Ivan Hlinka, before he was “dying alive,” before Mario Lemieux’s return stole his spotlight, and before he jilted Penguins fans (again) last season by signing with rival Philadelphia, Jagr was quite a phenomenon: part hockey god, part heartthrob – despite looking like a wayward Def Leppard roadie upon his arrival in Pittsburgh in June 1990.
His charging bull strength and slashing style were in stark contrast to and a lethal complement for the graceful elegance of Lemieux. That the 18-year old Jagr spoke virtually no English and had one of the greatest mullets in hockey history only added to the novelty. He lived with a Czech family in West Homestead. He gave the forecasts on the ‘DVE Morning Show (“JAR-O-MIR Wea-ther!”). He drove a Trans Am.
And he scored other-worldly goals, like this overtime winner of a 1991 Patrick Division semifinal match against New Jersey, as described by Shelly Anderson.
“Jagr, 19, took a pass from [Phil] Bourque outside the blue line on the right side. Already being covered, he swooped into the Devils’ end, ignoring the checks.
“Using one hand to control the puck, he moved from the bottom of the right circle toward the crease where he regained a strong handle on the puck.
“New Jersey goaltender Chris Terreri charted Jagr’s sideward move but Jagr – in the clear now – waited, waited, then popped a lofted shot over Terreri, who had been fooled to the ice.
“ “It was a great goal by Jaromir,” said Penguins winger Kevin Stevens. “He’s so strong.” ”
He routinely dazzled Civic Arena crowds until he was traded to Washington in a salary purge in July 2001. He’s been poorly received in the 26 return visits he’s made since, despite remaining the second-greatest player in franchise history.
At age 41, Jagr nears the end of a Hall-of-Fame career, and it’s possible this series may represent his last trip here as an NHL player. He may even get some kind of ovation from soft-hearted Pittsburgh partisans – provided, of course, it’s the Penguins, and not Jagr’s Bruins, who advance to the Stanley Cup Finals.