Jaromir Jagr feature

PITTSBURGH -- Jaromir Jagr’s relationship with Pittsburgh is as unique as the man himself.

In his first 11 seasons after being selected by the Pittsburgh Penguins with the No. 5 pick in the 1990 NHL Draft, the city loved every bit of the Jagr package.

Winning the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. The customary salute after a goal. The wry smile and flowing mullet.

“I came here, the city, the people, they helped me,” Jagr said Friday during a dinner event in Pittsburgh. “I felt like I was unstoppable.”

On July 11, 2001, the right wing was traded to the Washington Capitals. Everything changed. In each return, the crowd bristled as the puck touched Jagr's stick before cooling later in his 24 NHL seasons.

But really, Pittsburgh just wanted Jagr back. On Sunday, he will be when the prodigal son has his No. 68 retired by the Penguins before they face the Los Angeles Kings at PPG Paints Arena (6 p.m. ET; SN-PIT, BSW, SN360, TVAS).

“I’m kind of afraid of it. They don’t like me here,” Jagr said. “Plus, I don’t really enjoy it. I don’t know how to explain it. People will say, ‘Oh, he’s crazy. Why doesn’t he like it?’ I don’t like that. I like to be on the side. I don’t have to be seen. I just love the game.

“But on the other side, I’m so honored for whatever is going to happen Sunday. I’m so honored.”

Jagr will become the third Penguins player to have his number retired, joining Mario Lemieux (66) and Michel Briere (21). He is second in NHL history with 1,921 points (766 goals, 1,155 assists) in 1,733 games, behind Wayne Gretzky (2,857).

In Pittsburgh, he won the Hart Trophy as NHL most valuable player (1999), the Art Ross Trophy as points leader five times (1995, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001) and the Ted Lindsay Award as the League’s most outstanding player as voted by the players’ association twice (1999, 2000).

Jagr is fourth in Penguins history with 1,079 points (439 goals, 640 assists) in 806 games, trailing Lemieux (1,723), Sidney Crosby (1,556) and Evgeni Malkin (1,270).

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“When I think about it, I see how life goes by," Jagr said. "People are just going to forget you in five years when you stop playing. That happens because new guys come in, new guys come in. But this is going to be forever. No matter, 20, 10 years.

“The new fans are going to come and they're going to look up, and they’re going to say, ‘Hey, there was some Jagr that played here in Pittsburgh.’”

Since Jagr’s tenure, centers Crosby and Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang have led the Penguins to championships in 2009, 2016 and 2017.

To ensure that long-term health, Jagr said he suggested a trade to general manager Craig Patrick after reaching the Eastern Conference Final in 2001.

“My salary was pretty high. Mario came back. There was no reason to keep me,” Jagr said. “That’s what I thought. If Mario is here, the fans are going to come to watch him. If I’m going to be here, OK, but if we cannot sign [second-line forwards Martin Straka, Alex Kovalev and Robert Lang], we’re not going to be better than we were last year. There’s no way.

“I told [Patrick], ‘Hey, listen, let’s do it this way. It’s going to be good for the organization. Maybe it’s going to be good for me. I’m going to take the pressure from you. I’m going to say, ‘I want to be traded.’ I think he was talking to Mario and it just happened. Maybe it’s meant to be. ... Maybe there’s no Sid. Maybe there’s no Malkin. That’s the way it is. Sometimes you have to suffer to feel great, better, later.”

The influence remains. From Magnitogorsk, Russia, Malkin idolized Jagr, a native of Kladno, Czechia.

“It’s my hero, for sure,” Malkin said. “His personality is unbelievable. He's always smiling, joking around. I like it. He’s never negative. He’s always, like, a positive vibe. He’s great. He won everything. He deserves it.”

Letang, inspired by Jagr, grew up wearing No. 68. Raised in Montreal, what was the attraction?

“Everything,” Letang said. “He’s not known for (being) a physical player, but he plays the game the hard way. He uses his body. He has a ton of skill, deception. He’s a great passer. As I got older, I got to know how much work he puts into his game and his dedication to it.”

And then there’s Crosby, who recalled May 26, 1992.

It was Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. Jagr intercepted a pass from the Chicago Blackhawks' Paul Gillis and stickhandled around Dirk Graham to the left circle. Gillis approached Jagr just to have the puck slide between his legs. Jagr went around Frantisek Kucera to the slot for a tying backhand goal at 15:05 of the third period in a 5-4 win.

“A lot. The hair, right away. The salute,” Crosby said of what Jagr evokes. “Was it Chicago when he kind of walked everyone? That goal there. ... Just a legend and, obviously, someone I grew up watching but also was fortunate to play against.”

Those who have played with Jagr, across generations, feel the same.

“The one thing I always respected about ‘Jags’ was his work ethic, but I remember [when he was] an 18, 19-year-old, when I played with him, we had to kick him off at morning skates,” said Vancouver Canucks coach Rick Tocchet, a teammate in Pittsburgh from 1992-94.

“At the rink later than anybody, not just training but whatever he was doing. He always wanted to get better,” said New York Rangers forward Vincent Trocheck, who was born in Pittsburgh on July 11, 1993, and played with Jagr with the Florida Panthers from 2015-17.

“He’d hold the puck, be strong with the puck and I think I play a little bit a similar way. His work ethic is something special,” said San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl, a teammate with Czechia in the 2015 IIHF World Championship.

Having turned 52 on Thursday, Jagr keeps going with four assists in 15 games this season for Kladno, the team he owns in Extraliga, the top professional league in Czechia. But he doesn’t know how much longer that could last.

“I still like the game,” Jagr said. “I think I’m going to like the game until I die. But I’m a very religious person. Since I started being very religious and I start going to the church all the time, I don’t have the hunger in me to be the best. I lost it.

“For me, it’s more important to make other people happy. With that attitude, it’s tough to go on the ice. You can go there to enjoy it. But if you want to win something and compete, you need the extra. And I lost it.”

Still, a rare hockey IQ remains.

“You’d think that you were just about done for the day, and he would come and want to talk about something,” said Rangers coach Peter Laviolette, who coached Jagr with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011-12. “You’d leave there thinking about what he’d said and whether that had an impact on what you were going to do moving forward. I think he was a brilliant hockey mind, is a brilliant hockey mind.

“An impact player for the longest time in the National Hockey League. And that his number is being retired is certainly well deserved.”

It’s also a chance at closure. For Jagr and his former teammates. For current Penguins. And for fans that have been waiting.

“Growing up watching him when he was here,” Crosby said, “and seeing what he meant to the team, and winning, and the city, just the impact that he had, to be able to be a part of that and to witness that kind of come full circle and see his jersey go up to the rafters, it’s something we all feel fortunate to be a part of. It’ll be a special night.”

NHL.com staff writer Tom Gulitti contributed to this report

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