Owner-player Jaromir Jagr sees both sides of NHL lockout

KLADNO, Czech Republic – Who's the owner around here? Seriously. Something needs to be done. It looks like this arena hasn't been renovated since it was built in 1949 – at least since they put the roof on 10 years later.

Though it can fit 8,000 people, it can seat only 1,600. The rest have to stand on the concrete risers that wrap around half the rink. The halls are full of dark wood paneling, covered with nicks and scratches, and everything needs a coat of paint or three.

The scoreboard over center ice is small, with old Atari graphics. At least it works. There is another one near the rafters in an end zone, next to an analog clock, but it sits dark the whole game.

There are no luxury boxes, unless you count the cafe with windows to the ice. Almost all of the concession stands are outside under tents, because there isn't enough room inside for a concourse.

And then there is the dressing room. We'll just say it isn't up to NHL standards.

Isn't the owner taking grief?

"Oh," says center Tomas Plekanec, "we teasing him a little bit."

About what?

"Everything," he says. "Everything sucks here, this arena."

Plekanec smiles.

"But," he adds, "it's somehow kind of magic place, anyway."

Game time comes, and presto, the pumpkin turns into Madison Square Garden.

Fans squeeze onto those concrete risers. They squeeze in early, because it's first come, first served. Many don't leave during intermission, because they don't want to lose their spots.

And they don't just stand. They sing and chant to the beat of a drum, minute after minute, period after period. They scream and cheer, goal after goal.

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The wood paneling doesn't matter. The faded paint doesn't matter. The lack of amenities doesn't matter. The negatives somehow morph into positives – character, atmosphere.

All that matters are the Knights of Kladno, and what has already been done, what is going on right now. Who's the owner around here? Seriously.

It's Jaromir Jagr.

* * * * *

He is an owner. He is a player. He is also a locked-out NHL player, a dues-paying member of a union – the NHL Players' Association – in a labor battle with owners. That creates a unique situation in Kladno, and that gives Jagr a unique perspective on the NHL lockout.

He doesn't want to be here; his team is benefitting because he is; he's having a great time. He understands what it's like to be a player; he understands what it's like to be an owner; he thinks both sides need to worry about the game.

"To be honest, I would like to be in Dallas right now," says Jagr, who signed a one-year, $4.5 million deal with the Stars over the summer. "But if it is this opportunity, I'm happy about it. We're probably having the best team we're ever going to have in this city. I don't think it's going to be again. More games we play together, the more we're enjoying it.

"We just want to take the best from a bad situation."

Jagr grew up in Kladno, a town of about 70,000 people about 45 minutes northwest of Prague. He played in this arena, and he played for this club. Then he left to become one of the greatest players in hockey history, winning two Stanley Cups and an Olympic gold medal, a Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player and five Art Ross Trophies as its scoring champion.

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His father, also named Jaromir, owned a chain of hotels and HC Kladno. The plan was to pass the club to his son when his NHL career ended – except it wouldn't end. After playing three years in the Kontinental Hockey League, Jagr returned to the NHL in July of 2011, signing with the Philadelphia Flyers.

"My dad was holding it for 17 years for me to come back, and he put a lot of money in it – own money in it," Jagr says. "He couldn't take it anymore. He's 70 years old. It was tough. The team was losing money. He wanted to keep it for me, and I didn't want to come back yet because I feel like I still can play in NHL."

So Jagr – the same guy who has seemed disloyal and money-grubbing at times – took over the club last year while he was playing in the NHL. He had to. Otherwise, it was going to move, and it has roots in Kladno that run as deep as 1924. Black-and-white team pictures line a wall in the cafe, on the other side of a door from a color photo of Jagr and the Art Ross.

Jagr owns 70 percent of the club; the town owns the rest. He changed the name to "Knights," because knights had the qualities he wanted in his team, like courage, honesty and tenacity; respect, selflessness and fairness. He helped design a new logo, a medieval knight wearing the helmet of St. Wenceslas I, patron of the Czechs. He is heavily involved in the business.

"It's my baby," he says.

Jagr isn't signing fat checks to his fellow players, even the locked-out NHLers like Plekanec, Marek Zidlicky and Jiri Tlusty. Plekanec, normally a Montreal Canadien, also grew up in Kladno, played in this arena and played for this club. He didn't want to go anywhere else during the lockout.

"There were no negotiations," says Plekanec, whose salary basically pays to insure his NHL contract. "You're playing for free."

Jagr isn't cashing fat checks, either. Hockey-related revenue? The Knights aren't generating much. They aren't even trying very hard.

Standing on those concrete risers costs only 130 crowns – about seven bucks. There is a merchandise shop, and there are signs with Jagr pointing the way, but when a fan tried to enter during the first intermission Sunday, the door was locked. It was closed – closed during a sold-out game.

"You don't make money," Jagr says. "The fans don't pay much for the tickets. You depend on the sponsors. If the players come wanting more, I will have to give them from my own pocket. I give them what I can. I'll have to tell them no. In NHL, it's still business. Owners still making money. This is charity."

Even if there are major differences between the NHL and the Czech Extraliga, Jagr's experience helps him see both sides.

In October, he told the Czech website idnes.cz that NHL owners weren't trying to cheat the players out of their existing contracts, as Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin had asserted. He said it was simply business. He also said the owners "set the rules" and that commissioner Gary Bettman was working for the owners.

"I see it differently than when I was 25," says Jagr, who is 40. (Ovechkin, for the record, is 27.) "I see it differently because I'm an owner."

He knows more because he is an owner. He also knows what he doesn't know – that there is a lot involved with running a business and keeping the books, and that the players aren't involved with it. With a laugh, he says it is much easier to simply practice for an hour, work out and go home.

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"I don't see the details [in the NHL] – and I don't think I'm the only one," Jagr says. "I think the players don't know anything. You might know some numbers, but you actually don't know the details. If you don't know the details, it's tough to kind of react to it.

"That's why you depend on the guy who's running it for us, and the NHL depends on Bettman. Those two guys together, they have to make sense."

Jagr understands Bettman and NHLPA executive director Don Fehr are fighting for their constituencies. But he sees a league that grew tremendously while he played in Russia for three years, and he sees shame in damaging it.

When he returned to the NHL, Jagr played for the Flyers against the New York Rangers in the Winter Classic, the annual outdoor showcase, at a packed Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. The 2013 Winter Classic, which was supposed to draw a record crowd of 110,000-plus to Michigan Stadium to see the Detroit Red Wings host the Toronto Maple Leafs, has already been canceled.

"Most of the hurt, it's the fans and the game," Jagr says. "It got a lot more popular than before. You could see it, the money they're making. The league making a lot more money than before. The fans follow it a lot more than before. Hopefully they [make] some sense together and make a deal.

"Nobody's going to win [if they don't]. Everybody's going to lose."

* * * * *

Actually, somebody is winning right now. The Knights are winning. The arena is winning. The Czech fans are winning.

"Last year it wasn't like this, for sure," says Kladno defenseman Jiri Drtina. "Now it's great."

The plan was for Jagr to play for the Knights after his NHL career ended, and that is still the plan. When he's finally done in North America, whenever that is, he will come back here and play.

But he is already here because of the lockout, and so the stands are full in Kladno, when they were far from full before, and they're full everywhere the Knights play on the road, when they aren't necessarily full otherwise, and everyone is enjoying the hell out of it, not knowing how long it will last.

"I think guys from NHL improve the Extraliga this year," says fan Tomas Horak, 42, who says he played with Jagr in junior. "Of course, they are on a higher level than the other players from the Czech Extraliga. I think especially for fans, it's great to see these guys in the Czech Republic, in our ice rinks."

This is truly Kladno's ice rink. In fact, it is simply called Municipal Ice Rink.

While the Knights practiced Saturday, a bunch of kids played ball hockey right on the other side of the boards – just as Plekanec says he used to do as a kid. Toward the end of Sunday's game, men walked between the boards and the packed stands carrying sticks and equipment bags, headed to their dressing rooms for their adult league. As Jagr did postgame interviews, they brushed past him in the cramped hall on their way to the ice. Jagr joked with one of them.

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Jagr has gray in his beard, but he looks more like one of those up-and-coming kids than one of those has-been men. Against lesser competition, on the larger ice surface, he looks like the younger version of himself. His skills set him apart here even more than they do in the NHL.

In a 7-2 victory Sunday over Chomutov, Jagr had a goal and three assists. He turned a defenseman inside-out for a scoring chance. He played keep-away with four opponents in the neutral zone, then zipped a pass onto the tape of a teammate at the offensive blue line. He tried to poke the puck past a defender on the rush and failed – and like this was ball hockey on the other side of the boards, just laughed as he skated back toward the bench.

Jagr has 10 goals and 26 points, fifth in the league. He's two points behind Plekanec, his linemate, and he has played one less game (16).

"Sometimes I feel nervous to play with a guy like him," Drtina says. "You can see that he's a great player – his moves and everything. He's just the best."

The ancient arena rocked before, during and even after the game. The Knights came back out of the dressing room for a victory lap. Two years after failing to make the playoffs, they rank second in the league.


Clap, clap, clap.


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The owner sees no need to renovate.

"It's so cold here, they have to do something to keep them hot," Jagr says, laughing. "On the one side, of course it would be enjoyable for the fans. It would be a lot better for them. On the other side, this is our arena. It's got an advantage. It's old. It's cold. I know the other teams don't want to come here."

They put the roof on this place in 1959. Now, at least for now, they're blowing it back off.

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