Jaromir Jagr: International Superstar

With the elimination of the Czech Republic by Sweden in the bronze medal game in this year’s World Championship, held in Minsk, Belarus, Jaromir Jagr announced his retirement from international play. While Jagr had only half-seriously, it seems now, mentioned to The Star Ledger prior to last season’s Olympic break that he wanted to play in the 2018 Olympics (at which he would be 46 years old), the close to this chapter of Jagr’s storied career is a big one.

Many know about his exploits in the National Hockey League: most career game-winning goals (124), most goals by a European born player (705), assists by a European player (1,050) and most points by a European born player (1,755) – among many other records – as well as the accolades: two time Stanley Cup champion (1991 and 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins), five time Art Ross Trophy winner (1995, 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001) as the league’s scoring champ, three time Lester B. Pearson Award (player’s MVP – 1999, 2000 and 2006), the 1999 Hart Trophy winner as league MVP, seven time NHL First Team All-Star and a member of the 1991 NHL All-Rookie Team. However, there is another side to Jagr’s career, on the larger ice sheet of international play that is rarely publicized outside of his native Czech Republic.

Jagr began his international career representing Czechoslovakia at the 1989 European Junior Championship. There the team would win a silver medal while Jagr would pick up 12 points in five games played (8 goals and 4 assists). The following year, Czechoslovakia would place third in both the World Junior Championships and the World Championships. Jagr was a member of both of those bronze medal winning teams and would post 18 points in seven games played in the WJC but only 5 points in ten games at the World Championships.

Jagr’s North American tournament debut was at the 1991 Canada Cup, the season after he had made his remarkable debut with Pittsburgh. The young Pens’ star posted a goal in five games played as the Czechs finished in sixth place. Jagr would have to wait until 1994 to represent what was now known as the Czech Republic at the World Championships. The team played to a seventh place finish as Jagr had two assists in just three games played.

Jagr’s next two forays into international hockey would see two extremely different finishes. At the 1996 World Cup of Hockey (the late summer tournament that replaced the Cold War-era Canada Cup) the Czechs would finish in eighth place (the lowest a Jagr-led Czech team would ever finish in international play) and Jagr would have one goal in three games played. That debacle would be followed up two years later at the 1998 Nagano Olympic Games, where NHL stars were allowed to compete for the first time in Olympic history. It was here where Jagr would total five points (one goal and four assists in six games) and the Czech Republic would finish first and win the gold medal. It was undoubtedly the pinnacle of Jagr’s international career and would only add to his legend as one of the greatest of all time.

Jagr and the Czechs followed that performance up with a seventh place finish four years later in 2002 in their Olympic title defense at Salt Lake City. Jagr had 2 goals and 3 assists in a quick four game exit. It was a disappointing return to the international stage for Jagr and that same year, he would compete in the World Championships finishing with an even 4 goals and 4 assists in seven games as the team moved to a fifth place finish.

The year 2004 saw Jagr compete internationally in two tournaments: the World Championships (hosted by the Czechs in Prague and Ostrava) where the Czech Republic was eliminated by the Americans in the Quarterfinals, 3-2. In that tournament, Jagr had five goals and four assists in seven games. Jagr’s other international appearance in 2004 was in the World Cup of Hockey where he ended with one goal and one assist in five games while the Czechs won the bronze medal.

The following year saw World Championship gold for Jagr and the Czechs (he had 2 goals, 7 assists and 9 points in 8 games), while 2006 gave Jagr a return to the Olympic Games. In those Olympics, Jagr had 2 goals and 5 assists in 8 games, helping the Czechs to a bronze medal finish.

After a three year absence from the international scene, Jagr returned in 2009 at the World Championships and scored 3 goals and 6 assists in seven games. The Czechs plodded to a sixth place finish that year and would do only slightly better at the Olympics the following year. At the 2010 Vancouver Games, where Jagr was the Czech Republic’s flag bearer marching into the Olympic Stadium at the opening ceremonies, the Czechs finished in seventh place while Jagr had only 2 goals and 1 assist in five games played. That year’s World Championships saw Czech Republic win gold and Jagr score 3 goals and 4 assists in nine games. That tournament was notable for Jagr as he set a personal “best” for PIMs with 12. Twenty eleven’s World Championships saw the Czechs drop to third place with a bronze medal while Jagr had nine points in nine games (5 goals, 4 assists).

Jaromir Jagr’s international career came to an end in 2014 with an appearance in the Sochi Olympics, where the Czechs would finish sixth (Jagr had 2 goals and 1 assist in five games) and in the World Championships, where the team finished fourth and Jagr finished up his last international tournament with 4 goals and 4 assists in ten games.

Although the Czech Republic would not medal in either of Jagr’s final two appearances with the team, the current Devil (who had just resigned with the NHL team for the 2014-15 season) has certainly made his mark internationally. As in the NHL, Jagr was brilliant in his international career and a player truly deserving of the word “superstar.”

Hopefully for Devils fans, Jagr will not get a chance to rethink his decision to retire from the Czech National Team (as the World Championships are played at the same time as the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the teams are usually populated with guys whose teams either missed the second season or were eliminated early on). So, while he has exited the world stage NHL fans in general and Devils fans in particular look forward to seeing what the notorious gym and rink rat Jagr can do for the next year or so.

Mario Lemieux: Almost a Devil

In 1984, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New Jersey Devils battled to the last game of the season, not for Stanley Cup glory, but for the coveted first pick in that summer’s NHL Draft. The player expected to go number one overall that year was Mario Lemieux of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Laval Voisins. At this point in the NHL’s history, there was no draft lottery: the team that finished last overall in the league got the first pick. Lemieux could be the type of player that would change the fortunes of a struggling franchise and that urgency was not lost on management of the two struggling teams.

Teams were preparing to get a crack at Lemieux as far back as 1981 (Montreal traded Pierre Larouche to the Hartford Whalers that year in exchange for the Whalers first round pick in the hope that Hartford would finish last come 1984 and Mario could be picked by his hometown team). While Montreal’s gamble did not pay off, come the 1983-84 season, two teams were in the hunt for Lemieux: the Pens and the Devils. As the NHL’s bottom feeders, “Le Magnifique” was within grasp. As the season progressed, Pittsburgh and New Jersey were neck-and-neck at the bottom of the league standings. By the time March rolled around, things started to get a little tense as, on March 5, the Penguins traded former Norris Trophy winning defenseman, Randy Carlyle to Winnipeg for a first round draft choice and a player to be named later. That player would go on to be Moe Mantha, obtained after the season ended. Next, Pens General Manager Eddie Johnston sent the team’s number one goalie (Roberto Romano) down to their American Hockey League affiliate in Baltimore. He was replaced with Vincent Tremblay, a goalie not quite on the level of Romano (he allowed 24 goals in 4 games once called up). And so it was, with a team of minor leaguers and castoffs, the Pens would finish three points behind the Devils (a record of 16-58-8 for 38 points versus the Devils’ 17-56-7 for 41 points). The Devils, to their credit, continued to play their regulars. When the draft – held in Montreal – came around, the Penguins (as expected) picked Lemieux while the Devils, with the second overall pick, selected Kirk Muller of the Guelph Platers of the Ontario Hockey League.

While Kirk Muller was certainly a fantastic player, a franchise player worthy of the first overall pick in any other draft year and the Devils first real superstar, Mario Lemieux would go on to a career rivaled in the modern era only perhaps by Wayne Gretzky. Famously, “Super Mario” would score on his first shift on the ice in the NHL and, in fact, on his first NHL shot. More importantly than that, though, Mario would help to revitalize an NHL franchise that had not had a winning season since 1979 and not made the playoffs since 1982; a team that had filed for bankruptcy back in 1975 (the first NHL team to do so since World War II). Within seven years (1991) the Penguins were Stanley Cup champs thanks largely to Lemieux. The Pens would add another Cup in 1992 under Lemieux’s captaincy. Lemieux would fall in love with the city of Pittsburgh, living there, becoming a naturalized American citizen, and, when the Penguins ran into financial trouble again in the late 1990s/early 2000s and were on the verge of moving (as had been threatened prior to Mario’s arrival in Pittsburgh), he swooped in to buy the team, securing their future in Pittsburgh and helping to get financing for their new arena. Mario Lemieux would be the Pittsburgh Penguins savior not once, but twice.

The rest of the fallout from that draft included the NHL going to a lottery system whereby the lower you finished, while giving you a better chance at gaining the number one overall pick, did not guarantee you the first pick. The Devils, with Muller, would actually see more immediate improvement than the Penguins (making the playoffs in 1988 and going all the way to the Wales Conference Finals that year) while the Pens would not make the playoffs for the first time in the Lemieux era until 1989. However, by 1991, the Devils would trade “Captain Kirk” to the Canadiens for Tom Chorske and Stephane Richer, who was a key component on the Devils first Stanley Cup team in 1995.

In the end, it could be said that everything worked out for everyone involved: the Penguins got Mario and he led them to two Stanley Cups as a player and a third as team owner. But more importantly on the Pittsburgh side of things: he helped keep the team in the city not once, but twice. From the NHL’s perspective, they got a superstar player who would help revitalize a team that was a doormat really since their inception into the league and got incentive to fix a draft system that was broken. The Devils got an immediate superstar in Kirk Muller, who would lead them through the late 80s as captain and undisputed leader. His trade to Montreal would also bring them one of the bigger figures from their ’95 Cup team.

It is easy to look back at this whole affair with 20/20 hindsight and see how everything played out fine for both the teams and the league. Both the Pens and the Devils have the same number of Cups today at three, so we could say that everything worked out. Conversely, there could be a tendency to say that the Devils got the short end of the stick and that they could have had even more should Lemieux been drafted by them. It did not work out that way and we will never know. What is known is how deathly serious getting Mario was at the time. The Devils and the Penguins were in dire straits as franchises and Lemieux was a franchise player, he could only go to one team, but the hockey world got two stable, great franchises out of him.