Call this the long, cold winter of Jaromir Jagr’s discontent.
Just when he seems to have it all--two Stanley Cup championships, four NHL scoring titles, a $10 million salary, his own personal coach--the man considered the world’s best player has mysteriously lost the one gift he could always count on.
Namely, a scoring touch rivaled by few players in the last quarter-century other than Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. A scoring touch that Lemieux, the Penguins’ owner, hopes he can help revive with a stunning return to the ice.
It is a comeback that might have been prompted by Jagr’s frustration at his drop-off in goals and an increase in criticism created by the perception that he--not Lemieux--really runs the team.
For example, it is widely believed in Pittsburgh that former Czech Republic coach Ivan Hlinka was hired not just because the Penguins’ roster is filled with Europeans, but on behalf of Jagr, the team’s star, its captain and one of the NHL’s few proven box-office draws.
But having a familiar coach has not prevented what Jagr calls his most miserable season since joining the Penguins in 1990. A season he can only hope will be revived by playing alongside Lemieux again.
Some of the lowlights:
* Unhappy with the left-wing lock system used by most Czech coaches, including Hlinka, Jagr and nine other players met Nov. 4 in Calgary and devised their own plan. Unwilling to challenge his star player in his first month on the job, Hlinka went along without protest.
* Jagr, disappointed in his play and not one to hide it, had an in-game dispute with Hlinka on Nov. 8. The two then met for 20 minutes immediately after the game, an unusual time for a lengthy, face-to-face meeting between coach and star.
* Jagr cut short several shifts during a Nov. 25 home game against the Kings, then had another post-game meeting, this time with general manager Craig Patrick.
“I feel like I’m dying alive. ... I don’t feel comfortable here right now,” said Jagr, who wasn’t even in the top 10 in scoring two months into the season. “It’s not the same for me right now. We’ll see what happens. Maybe I’m going to think about retirement pretty soon.”
The 28-year-old Jagr wasn’t serious about retiring. However, he didn’t sound like a player who, despite several long slumps, remains in the race for a fourth consecutive scoring title and a fifth overall.
Lemieux tried to calm Jagr down, urging him to be patient and not so critical of his play. However, not long after their meeting, Lemieux apparently began planning his surprise comeback.
“He’s a great team player,” Lemieux said. “He’s just frustrated with his game.”
So what’s up with Jagr, anyhow, or more appropriately, why he is so down?
There seem to be several reasons. For one, Hlinka’s hiring has increased the pressure on Jagr to perform because it is held up as further proof of Jagr’s hold on the franchise.
Also, teams that previously didn’t use the neutral-zone trap against the Penguins are doing so, taking away the open ice and the frequent scoring chances Jagr treasures. Except for a four-goal game Oct. 14 against the Rangers, his goals have come slowly rather than in bursts and have required great effort rather than just great skill.
“They don’t want to give me anything,” Jagr said.
Jagr’s pouting might indicate he places himself and his personal goals above the team. He insists that isn’t true, even though the Penguins are playing about as well as predicted in a difficult division. (They’ve spent much of the early part of the season in first or second place in the Atlantic Division.)
Jagr suggested that only a player as talented as he--maybe Lemieux?--could relate to the disappointment he feels.
“It’s not just about scoring goals and getting goals,” he said. “It’s about being satisfied with the way I’m playing and the way the team is playing.
“I want to be the best I can be. ... I’m tough on myself. And I know my limits. I want to reach them every night. Of course, if I’ve got that kind of attitude, I’m not going to be happy all the time. But, hopefully, it’s going to get me where I want to be.”
Another scoring title? Another MVP award? Another Stanley Cup? Jagr isn’t saying, but it might take all the above to fully satisfy him.
“Mario was probably the same way. Every time he stepped on the ice, he wanted to be the best player,” Jagr said. “I’m the same way. I learned from him, and I think I have it inside me.”
Now, teacher and student could be reunited again on a team clearly lacking in internal leadership.
“Mario said he believes in this team and he believes we can, with a little luck, do some things this year,” Jagr said. “He is pretty confident about this team and confident that he can help the team go where all of us want to go.”
No doubt Lemieux will consider his comeback a success if he gets Jagr going again.
“I think he is going to be frustrated if things don’t go the way he wants them to go,” said Jagr, who could be summing up his own feelings as well. “But that’s normal. If you play bad and you’re not frustrated, something is wrong with you.”