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Monday, December 16, 2013

Jaromir Jagr: A Polarizing Legend by @griffTHW

In his Friday column, Dejan Kovacevic primed Penguins fans for what may have been Jaromir Jagr's final game in Pittsburgh with the glowing recollection of a time when "Jags" represented one of the Steel City's greatest heroes.  For most, though, those memories have long since faded.

Because the divorce between Jagr and Pens' fans was as caustic as they come.  Sure, in hindsight, Jaromir will tell you he looks back fondly on his time in Western Pennsylvania but the Penguins faithful aren't so forgiving.

Whether they are too young to remember Jagr's mullet flowing out from underneath his helmet as he undressed would-be defenders or too bitter regarding the fallout created by the superstar's departure, many still consider Jaromir's name to be taboo in Pittsburgh.

The hatred isn't necessarily unwarranted.  From the sentiment that he was "dying alive" and his subsequent trade to Washington to the way he snubbed Mario and the Pens when everyone thought he was coming "home" a couple of years ago, more than one reason exists to hold a grudge against "68".  As a result, more than a decade after his departure, he still remains one of Pittsburgh's most polarizing athletes.

So, as might be expected, Dejan's column elicited a plethora of responses from Pens' fans.  Ranging from the idea that Jagr was a selfish quitter to the recognition of all he accomplished in a Pittsburgh sweater, no shortage of opinion was uncovered.

One, response, though, really stood out.  After an incredibly logical, well-thought-out explanation regarding why he surmises people in Pittsburgh still loathe Jagr, the gentleman concluded his argument with a question:

...If you had a choice of any player from the last 30 years to build a team around, to be your franchise cornerstone, to be THE guy for you, would you pick Jagr? He's definitely a great player. But in my opinion, he's not and never has been a true cornerstone guy in the way that a Lemieux, Gretzky, Messier, Yzerman, Sakic, Crosby, etc. are. In my opinion, he wouldn't be anywhere near as valuable in that role as someone like a Ron Francis or Bryan Trottier. And that's precisely because you can't trust Jagr not to be a petulant flake, which is perhaps the biggest pity of his career. He could have been one of the true greats, justly revered for his career. But now...you have to discount everything BUT the numbers. Even when you include the numbers, you have to end up saying "great statistical player...but absolutely not a guy you could try to build a championship team around."
And, maybe there's something to that.  After all, Jagr never led a club to a Stanley Cup title.  Sure, he was instrumental in the Penguins' first two Cup runs (particularly the second) but, as a fresh-faced teenager, Jags was more adjusting to life in North America than leading the Pens to their place in hockey history.

What's more, he's bounced around as much as any great player in the history of the sport.  Whether he was simply chasing money, trying to escape his own financial woes or it was something else entirely, only he really knows.  Whatever the case, Jagr never seemed to have a problem moving on to the next chapter.

So, maybe he wasn't the cornerstone player you'd build a team around.  Maybe you would take a Lemieux or a Gretzky or a Yzerman before Jaromir in your quest for that franchise player or championship ring.

But, you know what?  That doesn't lessen all that Jagr achieved here.  Because, before things went south, it wasn't just about the numbers. 

It was about a city enamored with their long-haired superstar who lusted for life in the fast lane.  It was about the highlight-reel goals that brought fans out of their seats on an almost nightly basis.  It was about the gutsy performance that Dejan brought back to life in his piece, the effort an injured star came up with way back in 1999 that may have kept this franchise in Pittsburgh.

On top of all that, though, there was a time that Jagr was not only the face of a franchise but, also, the greatest player in the game.  Because, after Wayne Gretzky hung up his skates, he passed the figurative torch to Jagr as the game's brightest star.  After all, Jagr found himself in the middle of collecting a Hart, three Lester B. Pearson and five Art Ross Trophies at the time of The Great One's retirement.

Of course, to some, those awards may still represent nothing more than the individual accolades Jagr achieved for himself over the years.  Because, despite all those accomplishments, all the fame, all the money, he ultimately failed in the quest to put a team on his back and lead them to a championship.

Should, however, that failure alone define Jaromir as a player? 

Put all the goals, all the awards, all the milestones aside. One can't deny that Jaromir Jagr was the game's most dominant offensive force for a significant period of time.  One-on-one?  Forget about it.  The guy was virtually unstoppable; his blend of size, strength and skill went unmatched.  Trying to separate him from the puck was like climbing Everest.  Simply put, the NHL was his playground. 

Jaromir, alone, was worth the price of admission because, on any given night, he could create something out of nothing.  He captured the imagination of his fans while terrorizing his opponents.  And, before their relationship went off the rails, the Pittsburgh faithful loved him for it.

But, as is often the case, times changed and the bond deteriorated.  The adoration turned to feelings of betrayal as Jagr moved on with his career.  As he transitioned from hero to villain, his reputation began to take on water in the Steel City.  And, for many, his spurning of the Penguins for a second time to join the hated Philadelphia Flyers caused that reputation to forever sink into the abyss.

So, by all means, hate Jagr for his perceived selfishness, if you must.  Hate him for turning his back on the Penguins...twice.  Just don't forget that, at one time, he carved out a place for himself as one of hockey's all-time greats.  And he did it in a Penguins' sweater.


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