Monday, July 14, 2008

Belated Farewell to Captain Jaromir Jagr. . .

Now, just to clarify - my taking a 12 day hiatus from the blogging world was in no way due to not wanting to talk about what the Rangers (or any other team) did in the wake of Free Agent Frenziness. I did. But I was busy and my mind wasn't thinking clearly. So I felt it better to wait and write when I could, then write a messy mish-mosh of thoughts when I wasn't really in the mood. So, no, I did not lock myself in my room for the last 12 days crying over Jagr going back to Siberia. No. . .really, I didn't!

But, honestly, if we're being very and completely honest, I did shed some tears when I read that Marcus Naslund was in, and Jaromir Jagr was out. It sounded so final and it marked the end of what was really a great 3.5 year run on Broadway for one of the greatest European players of all time.

Whether you liked him or disliked him, wanted him to stay or desperately needed him gone, Jaromir Jagr left his mark on New York. Maybe not in that first half season (pre-lockout), but most certainly in the three years that followed. When no one, not fans or coaches or teammates alike, knew what to think about the Rangers post-lockout, Jagr knew. He knew that the team would be better than it had been. In fact, he guaranteed it. A playoff berth for the team seven (eight with the lockout) removed from the playoffs and from respectability.

And it happened. Oh yes it did happen. And no doubt, that 2005-2006 Rangers team was carried by one Jaromir Jagr. Did other players play parts? Absolutely. Michael Nylander and Martin Straka joined Jagr on a top line that amassed points and surprised many. The Rangers defense, for so many years a horrible liability, seemed to finally get it. If you take penalties you better learn to kill them off. And a goalie, who if all indications are correct, was starting to build quite a career for himself, in Henrik Lundqvist. They all deserve credit, coaching staff and all, but it was Jagr who believed and it was Jagr who delivered in ten-fold.

Thousands of players wore the jersey for the Blueshirts. Many were amazing. Some were legendary. There were better than Jagr in the past and there very well might be better to come. But only one man has his name next to the all-time single season record for goals scored for the New York Rangers. Jaromir Jagr - 54 goals. And only one man has his name next to the all-time single season scoring record for points for the the New York Rangers. Jaromir Jagr - 123 points. All this was accomplished on his first full season in blue. His first season as a real and true Ranger.

His guarantee and delivery to the playoffs - that's what leaders do. Captains too. Ironically after Jagr took the captaincy the following season, he never came close to those numbers again. He had a good season after rehabbing from shoulder injury. Some may argue he never should have been the captain. I argue that I think he deserved it. I'm just not sure he wanted it. Maybe when all is said and done, I'll look back and wonder two things about Jagr - would he have played better had he not assumed the role of captain, and just what made him reach out to smack Scott Gomez that fateful playoff day in April 2006. After both, Jagr was not exactly the same, but you know what. I am happy he was the captain for the New York Rangers. I'm proud of what he did for the team.

I can go on and on and on about Jagr. He's a man and a player I've grown to respect in the last three years. When the Rangers first got him for Anson Carter from the Capitals, I was unsure. When I thought of Jagr, I always thought of that pudgy faced Penguin with the horrible hair. (My grandmother disliked him for years because of that hair!) Thankfully he grew up, fixed the hair!, and came to play for the Rangers. He gained a lot of respect from me and I'm thankful I got the chance. I am a fan of Czech players. I'm one of the few that defend Petr Nedved (and Janny Hlavac and Radek Dvorak during their tenures here), and the rest of the Czechs. But Jaromir has a very interesting story and it's one that I didn't fully appreciate until he came to play for New York:

I have no doubt in my mind that Jagr isn't perfect. I'm sure he isn't. But from what I do know and from what I've seen in New York, is that he is a proud man. He shows what he feels. If he's unhappy in his play, it shows. If the team (the team) is winning, he is happy. And it shows. I truly believe he is more about the team than about the player. (And argue with me all you want; I'm willing to listen). But for a guy whose reputation was whining and being a prima donna, I have not seen that player in New York. I cannot and will not speak to his time in Pittsburgh and Washington. Remember, I had those hair issues. But I can say that I have watched this man carry players on his back and not get the call. I've seen that countless times. And in three years, I've only seen him complain about five times. If that. He is a proud man and a hell of a hockey player. And to come from what he came from and do what he does, it is really remarkable. Jagr's is not the only story (aforementioned Petr Nedved has a touching one too), but I cannot for the life of me watch Jagr play hockey and think of all he's been through without thinking of how easy (in comparison) so many other players had it. I am not pretending to know what being a professional athlete is like. I can't. I can only imagine the personal and physical sacrifices it takes. But you can't tell me that a hockey player growing up in Canada or in America, regardless of whatever physical obstacles they had to endure, can understand the emotional and psychological battles that players like Jagr and others that had to live through in Europe and overcome just to play a game they loved. I can't. They can't. It's remarkeable. And if nothing else, if he never scored a goal for the Blueshirts, I'd respect him for that. As it was, he scored, 124 goals and 319 points in 3.5 seasons in New York. And I respect him for each and every one of those.

In closing, do I wish Jaromir Jagr got the 84 points he needed to play another year on Broadway? Yes, I do. I think I will feel it extra strongly next year that he is not there. Again, a lot of legendary and great players played for the red, white, and blue, over the years. I was lucky enough to see a great number of them during my time as a fan. Jaromir Jagr was one of them. It's a great pleasure to see one of the greatest players of all time, which he most certainly is, play night in and night out. When hockey history is written, Jagr will be looked at as one of the greatest of all time, probably top ten, and almost undoubtably the best European offensive player of all time. And I will miss him. We will all miss him, whether they'll admit it or not. But I'm going to choose to believe that as Jagr himself said - everything happens for a reason. Maybe it's his destiny to go back to Omsk. I wish him luck and I wish him well. He has a great sense of humor, a good sense of character, and a good heart. Those things will lead him well.

I'll close with a quote from Larry Brook's in The New York Post from July 4th:

"Jaromir Jagr will never have his number retired in a ceremony at the Garden. But make no mistake. No. 68 was one of the most significant players to ever wear the Blueshirt."


Thanks #68. . .for the memories. All of them.

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