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Jagr Makes a Speedy Rise to Top of NHL : Stanley Cup finals: Penguins’ young star begins to show his potential in playoffs. Game 2 is tonight.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At 19, Czechoslovakian hockey player Jaromir Jagr didn’t know what to make of America.

He couldn’t understand the language.

He couldn’t understand the traffic laws.

And, he figured, he couldn’t play in the NHL.

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At 20, he simply smiles and says, “What a country.”

He speaks well enough to communicate with the masses.

He plays well enough to compete with the NHL’s elite.

And he drives fast enough to contend in the Indy 500.

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Jagr has become a terror in Pittsburgh, both on the streets, where his speed has netted him more driving tickets than he can count, and on the ice, where a different type of speed has elevated him to a starring role for the Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals.

Jagr’s memorable goal Tuesday night was a key factor in Pittsburgh’s 5-4 comeback victory over the Chicago Blackhawks in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. Game 2 will be played tonight at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena.

Jagr stole the puck, zigzagged past three Blackhawks and then backhanded his 10th postseason goal, tying the score with a little under five minutes to play.

Teammate Mario Lemieux called it “the greatest goal I’ve ever seen.”

Jagr merely smiles at such praise. As a matter of fact, he smiles at nearly everything. Life’s wonders never cease.

The name Mario Lemieux was among the first words Jagr learned outside the Czech language. As a teen-ager, he watched Lemieux in awe on television. Now Lemieux is watching Jagr in awe in person.

“With his tools, he’ll be the best in the game in a few years,” Lemieux said.

If so, Jagr is ahead of schedule.

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But then, he has always been ahead of schedule. His father, also named Jaromir, took his 3-year-old son onto the ice and put a stick into his small hands.

The younger Jagr recalls his father telling him, “ ‘You will play hockey.’ ”

The senior Jagr also made sure his son always played against older kids.

Nearly two decades later, Jagr is still competing and excelling against his elders.

A member of Team Czechoslovakia at the 1990 World Championships in Switzerland, Jagr was made the fifth pick in the NHL draft that year by Pittsburgh.

In his first season with the Penguins, he had 27 goals and 57 points in 80 games. This year, Jagr boosted those figures to 32 goals and 69 points in 70 games.

But all that was simply a warm-up for these playoffs. Jagr now seems to be flashing his incredible one-on-one skills--his dizzying cuts and his dazzling shots--almost nightly.

He has 10 goals and 23 points in 18 postseason games, has scored at least one point in nine consecutive games, has a league-leading four game-winning goals and won Game 1 of the Wales Conference finals against the Boston Bruins with an overtime goal.

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Wait until he matures.

With his thick hair, his infectious smile and his exploits off the ice, Jagr has begun to rival Lemieux in terms of attention in this town, something once unthinkable.

Jagr’s most famous off-the-ice antics involve his proclivity for speeding, darting in and out of traffic the way he does in and out of opposing defenses.

One reporter asked him if it was true he had already amassed 88 tickets.

“I get three in one week,” he conceded. “But I’ve not had one in two months.”

Jagr acknowledged that General Manager Craig Patrick had lectured him on his driving.

What did Patrick tell him?

“Slow down,” Jagr said.

That’s not advice Patrick is likely to give Jagr concerning his ice time.

The young wing has also become a familiar sight in Pittsburgh night spots, indulging his passion for arcade games. And he never has to worry about finding a quarter to keep playing. His young female fans keep him stocked with coins.

Not bad for a guy who says he learned much of his English from watching television’s “Married . . . With Children.”

From Al Bundy to Mario Lemieux. What a country.

Stanley Cup Notes

NHL President John Ziegler apparently is in trouble. Dissatisfaction with Ziegler’s handling of the 10-day player strike has intensified talk of his ouster by his harshest critics. A showdown could come at the draft meetings late in June. . . . To avoid a possible conflict with the Chicago Bulls, who could be in the NBA finals, the NHL has moved Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals, should it be necessary, from Friday, June 5 to Saturday June 6. That game would be played at Chicago Stadium, also the home of the Bulls. . . . In an awards ceremony at Civic Arena Wednesday, forward Ryan Walter of the Vancouver Canucks was named NHL man of the year as the most positive role model both on and off the ice. The Lester Patrick Trophy, given for outstanding service to hockey in the United States, was awarded to New York Islander Coach Al Arbour, New Jersey Devil President and General Manager Lou Lamoriello and USA Hockey official Art Berglund.


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