September 17, 2011
"Extremely odd," said Matthew Stein, a Philadelphia Flyers fan from Hamilton, NJ, while wearing an orange Jagr T-shirt, watching the NHL great compete in his first practice wearing a Flyers jersey. "It's extremely strange to see him skating in front of you with the orange and black on. Three years ago, he was on the Rangers."
Twenty-one years ago, Jagr was an 18-year-old rookie with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the franchise with whom he's still most identified after an 11-season run. A homecoming appeared likely during the offseason, as Jagr sought to return to the NHL and the Penguins were one of his primary suitors. But the Flyers offered a larger contract, the Penguins pulled their offer, and Jagr signed a 1-year deal with Philadelphia on July 1.
As much as Flyers fans are embracing him, does Jagr understand how some Penguins fans feel about his free-agent choice?
"First of all, when I was making the decision, I never thought that Pittsburgh fans would want me back. Every time I played there, they were booing me every time I touched the puck. I didn't think it would be such a big deal [to not play in Pittsburgh]," he said on Saturday in Voorhees, NJ.
"If I hurt somebody, I apologize, because I didn't want to."
Here are some highlights from Jagr's press conference with the Flyers:
The Flyers had some excellent reasons to take a chance on the 39-year-old NHL legend. And Jagr had some personal reasons why he wanted to give it one more try in the NHL.
Off the ice, Jagr is going to be seen a leader in the locker room. He doesn't need to command attention like Captain Chris Pronger(notes); he just needs to show the team's younger forwards how it's done, both strategically and in his work ethic.
"He was on the ice last night at 8 o'clock, skating with our trainers," said GM Paul Holmgren.
"There's no question that older players can rub off on younger players. I see that as only being a positive," said Coach Peter Laviolette, who mentioned players like James van Riemsdyk(notes), Jakub Voracek(notes), Wayne Simmonds(notes) and Brayden Schenn(notes) as potentially influenced by Jagr's style of play and effort.
On the ice, Jagr gives the Flyers a projected top line forward, as he skated with Claude Giroux(notes) and James van Riemsdyk during the first day of camp. More importantly, it gives them something the Penguins were hoping Jagr could have given them instead: a formidable presence on the power play.
"If you look back at last year, one of our problems, if not the biggest problem, was the power play," said Holmgren, of a power play that converted at just 16.6 percent last season. "He's a pretty talented guy off the wall, he's a pretty talented guy off the goal line, and he's big enough to play in front of net."
Jagr had 70 power-play points in his last two seasons with the New York Rangers, before leaving for the KHL in 2008.
Jagr said he kept tabs on the NHL during his time in Russia, via Internet videos and press reports. Jagr considers this return to the NHL as a challenge to himself — but he's not making any predictions.
"I'm not 21, trying to prove something with my words. I just have to wait and see. I can promise you one thing: I'm going to give it my best shot to play at a high level," he said.
"I'm 39; I didn't come here just for one year to impress myself. I'm not saying I'm going to be dominating, I'm not saying I'm going to play good; but I'm going to do all the right things to play here."
Jagr said it's also about winning, admitting that the chance to play for and win the Stanley Cup may have been something he took for granted as a younger player on Mario Lemieux's Penguins.
"To be honest with you, when I came into the League, I was 18 years old. During the communist years, there was not really people who knew about the NHL. They knew about Olympics and the world championships," he recalled.
"It was my first time out of the house. I was a little bit homesick. I wanted to go home after the season. But we kept winning and winning. And I didn't appreciate what I won. I thought it was going to be like that every year.
"I think this team has a shot to [win the Stanley Cup]. And I want to be a part of it."
For fans like Stein, who warmly accepted Jagr at the Flyers' training camp, he's already a part of it.
"I couldn't stand him a couple of years ago. But now he's orange and black and he's looking great out there," said Stein.
Watching Jagr on the ice, one realizes that this can still be a formidable player in the NHL for 2011-12, even if his face is a little older, his jersey is a different color and, of course, his hair is a different length.
Any chance we'll see the mullet again?
Alas, Jagr says don't count on it.
"Scott Hartnell would be jealous," he quipped.