Jagr's impact in Czech Republic exploded in 1992-93

Tuesday, 01.22.2013 / 10:00 AM
Michael Langr  - NHL.com Correspondent

It was the first year in which Jaromir Jagr really became an NHL offensive superstar.

The 21-year-old Czech wing scored 94 points during the 1992-93 NHL regular season and showed the world he was ready to dominate the League in the near future. But from his own point of view, he recalls that year almost as if it was a disaster, and not only because it was his first NHL season that didn't finish with a Stanley Cup raised above his head.

"I'd rather erase that season from my memory," Jagr wrote in his Czech biography "From Kladno to America." "Until Christmas, I just fought myself. And January was even worse. I scored just three goals during that month and one of them was an empty-netter."

In Jagr's opinion, the only two good things that happened during the 1992-93 campaign were attending the NHL All-Star Game in Montreal and meeting former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who had been a secret idol of Jagr's growing up in communist Czechoslovakia.

In the book, Jagr wrote about issues between him and legendary coach Scotty Bowman.

"I felt like I was in a pressure cooker and it was just a matter of time when I was going to blow up," he wrote. "The thing was that I did not play. Scotty gave me just about two or three shifts per period. I almost did not play any power plays and I got sick and tired of sitting on the bench."

After Jagr earned his second Stanley Cup in his first two years in the NHL with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1992, he set his personal goal for the next season: to score at least 100 points.

"I did not achieve that goal and it felt disappointing," said Jagr, who later won five Art Ross Trophies as the League's leading scorer and a Hart Trophy as the League's most valuable player.

Though Jagr does not like to recall the 1992-93 season, he still finished it with 25 more points than the previous year. And for Czech fans, 1992 was the year when Jagr's popularity really started to spread all over the country.

After Jagr's excellent performance in the 1992 Stanley Cup Playoffs, more and more people back home were ready to watch Jagr's magic dekes and moves during late night's broadcasts from North America. He drew more Czech attention to the NHL than any person before and turned most Czech hockey fans into Pittsburgh Penguins fans.

The fact Jagr comes from Kladno has helped his hometown become the greatest hotbed of current NHL players from the Czech Republic. Goalie Ondrej Pavelec, defensemen Tomas Kaberle and Marek Zidlicky, forwards Tomas Plekanec, Jiri Tlusty, Jakub Voracek, Michael Frolik and to a certain extent Patrik Elias, Tomas Vokoun and David Krejci all grew up in Kladno adoring Jagr and watching him rule over the NHL in the mid-to-late 1990s.

"As kids in Kladno," Plekanec said, "we'd be playing hockey watching Jagr and trying to play like him."

It was like that not only in Kladno, but all over the country.

"Who was my idol? Jagr, of course. Or do you think it could have been somebody else?" said Tomas Hertl, a first-round pick of the San Jose Sharks in the 2012 NHL Draft and probably the brightest Czech prospect today. Hertl grew up playing for Kladno's rival, Slavia Prague.

But there is no rivalry in the Czech hockey world when talking about No 68, who no plays for the Dallas Stars.

Jagr is a legend, probably the most popular athlete in the history of Czech sports. No one else draws as much attention and no one else gets as much coverage in the news -- from the tabloids to lifestyle magazines of all kinds. In many interviews, Jagr tries to point out the priorities in life and inspire people. Even those who don't care about hockey at all, they listen.

When Jagr played for Kladno in the Czech Extraliga during the NHL lockout, some home games of his club Rytiri Kladno were moved to Prague's O2 arena in order to accommodate bigger crowds. And while the league's average attendance slightly exceeds 5,000 spectators per game, more than 17,000 people went to see Jagr and Co. at almost each game in Prague.

At those games, about one-fifth of the fans usually cheered for Kladno, and another fifth for the other team. The rest did not care about the result. They just came to see Jagr.

Jagr's popularity is widespread across all generations, political orientation, towns and provinces.

"I was not surprised at all seeing how Jags made the whole nation crazy while playing in the Czech league," Philadelphia Flyers forward and Czech native Jakub Voracek said. "I also think he will be able to repeat this again when he comes home the next time after his NHL career is over. He's got such impact in the Czech Republic. And he's got the ability to play here even after a long time [away]. He still has everything: size, strength, hockey sense. We could see him on the ice for many years."

But Jagr today is a different type of a role model for young athletes and little kids than he used to be in the '90s. In 1993, people liked his light-hearted smile, his carefree approach and frisky character. But there were some who did not like him, for Jagr was also a superstar in the negative meaning of that word. He had gambling issues, he had issues with his coaches, he did not like to backcheck -- he was basically an independent player in a team game.

"The most important thing for me was to score goals. I felt that was the best way to help the team," Jagr explained. "Goal scored by No. 68 - to hear that, that was my motivation. But today, the best feeling for me is when our team wins. I used to love the games such as Penguins vs. the Rangers, those usually ended 7-5 or 8-7. Today, the best matchups for me are when we win 2-1 because we fought as a team to the very last second."

In 2012, there is a different Jagr -- a grown, wise man. He changed his approach to put the team first. He helps young players grow, he works harder on and off the ice than ever before.

His late-night practices became well known in Philadelphia the same way they did in Kladno. When he recorded one of those practices (including skating with ankle weights and a 50-pound vest) on camera and put it on Facebook, it instantly turned into a viral hit among Czech and Slovak fans.

There might have been some in the Czech Republic who did not like the early version of Jagr from the '90s. But today, there are none.

There may be some people there who do not care about hockey. But there are none who don't care about Jagr.

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