After 21 years, Bruins' Jagr back in Stanley Cup Final
CHICAGO -- The night Jaromir Jagr deked past four Chicago Blackhawks to score one of the most memorable goals of his career at the old Pittsburgh Civic Arena, George and Sandy Saad were five months and one day from welcoming a future NHL player into their family.
Brandon Saad grew up in Gibsonia, Pa., about a half-hour north of Pittsburgh, watching Jagr and the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Igloo. Saad is now a 20-year-old rookie for the Chicago Blackhawks, and he will face Jagr and the Boston Bruins in the 2013 Stanley Cup Final, starting with Game 1 on Wednesday at United Center (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, RDS).
It is the first time Jagr will play on the NHL's biggest stage since he and the Penguins defeated the Blackhawks in a four-game sweep in the 1992 Cup Final.
"It is a long time ago, but it was such an important series and such an important playoffs for me because we won. I remember almost everything," Jagr said. "That first game we were down 4-1 halfway through the game and I thought we didn't have much of a chance. They played very good hockey. They forechecked very well and we were making a lot of mistakes. Then all of a sudden with five minutes left, we were down one and I was lucky I scored a very good-looking goal and then Mario [Lemieux] won it with I think 10 or 15 seconds left. Even though it was the first game, I thought it was a key game."
Jagr was just a kid then, with his signature curly mullet flowing behind him as he skated around defenders for highlight-reel goals. His goal in Game 1 against the Blackhawks, when he intercepted a pass then juked past three players before using teammate Shawn McEachern as a screen on a fourth defender and backhanding a shot past goaltender Ed Belfour, tied the score at 4-4 and proved to be a seminal moment in Pittsburgh's repeat as Stanley Cup champion.
After being largely role player as a rookie in the spring of 1991, Jagr's path to superstardom became clear during the 1992 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he was third on the Penguins with 11 goals and fourth with 24 points in 19 games.
Pittsburgh was the favorite in 1993, but the New York Islanders stunned the Penguins in the second round. They were nearly Cup finalists again in 1996, but the Florida Panthers upset them. Jagr's career progressed and he piled up scoring titles and League MVP awards. But a return to the Cup Final proved elusive -- until now.
"The first years that I won it, especially the first year -- I was 18 and didn't speak much English," Jagr said. "It was the first time I [was] away for 10 months from my country -- probably it was even longer than 10 months because I had to go right after the draft. I was kind of homesick. We were winning and winning and winning and then we went to the Cup.
"When you are young, you don't really think about how tough it is. Obviously you have to be on a good team, but you can be on a great team and it is no guarantee you're going to get into the Final. You've got to be injury-free and your top players have to play the best hockey in those two months."
Jagr's time in Pittsburgh ended on a sour note, just as his tenure with the Washington Capitals would a few years later. The second half of his career has featured less tumult, but stops in New York and Philadelphia -- with a hiatus in the Kontinental Hockey League in between -- did not get him any closer to another championship.
He signed with the Dallas Stars in the offseason, but with the team scuffling, Jagr had a chance to join a Cup contender before the NHL Trade Deadline. The Bruins had missed out on a couple of trade targets, Brenden Morrow and Jarome Iginla, so they wanted Jagr -- even if he needed some convincing of this fact.
"To be honest, I was shocked," Jagr said. "I thought I was going to stay in Dallas. It was kind of a last-minute decision from management. I don't think that many teams knew I was going to be traded. When they told me that morning, first Dallas management met with me before I talked to guys from Boston. They told me I was going to get traded and it was up to me.
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"When I talked to Boston, you can ask them, I asked like three times, ‘Are you sure you want me?' They said, 'Yeah,' so here I am. ... I just wanted to make sure. I don't want to go somewhere they didn't want you like that. I don't want to be somewhere where I'm kind of useless. I'd rather not be playing."
There is no question Jagr can still play. He had 16 goals and 35 points this season in 45 games. He's moved on to Boston's second line next to Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and can still protect the puck in the offensive zone like few players ever have.
He's the savvy veteran now, the guy younger players look to for guidance. Saad grew up watching Jagr as a kid. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews wanted to emulate him at summer camps.
Even Michal Rozsival, who at 34 years old is one of the "old guys" on the Blackhawks roster, saw Jagr as a mentor when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1999.
"He's been a dominant player when he was younger. With his work ethic, he was able to keep himself playing at a very good level, still NHL level," Rozsival said. "He might not be as fast as he used to be. His stick got awfully long, though. He's still a strong guy, has great hockey sense. He can still make all the plays and he's really dangerous. He still has a good shot. He's still a great hockey player."
Saad said, "He's a special player. Obviously he has a ton of skill, but I think his work ethic is why he's here for sure."
Jagr is 41 years old. He still has long hair, but it isn't so long that it covers the name on his sweater anymore. When Jagr sat down at his podium for media day at United Center, it was clear a sign of his age had been hidden -- the salt-and-pepper beard he sported in the first three rounds was dyed brown.
He has always been a fascinating player when dealing with the media. At the best of times, days like Tuesday, Jagr is charming, self-deprecating -- for example, when told Toews tried to model his game after him, Jagr replied, "Then you got to tell him to slow down a little bit. He's too quick for me" -- introspective and informative.
And yes, he can poke a little fun at that iconic mullet.
"That's my personality. I like to have fun," Jagr said. "Obviously, the American media, they don't really know me that much, but the Czech media knows I like to have fun. I like to joke around all the time. I know it is not easy to be 41, but I don't think age is a matter. As long as you love the game, and you're willing to work hard every day more than the other guys, you can play.
"When I had the long hair, I wouldn't say it was the style, but I wasn't the only one who had it. There was a lot of guys. Maybe not that long, but it was a lot of guys. Right now it is a different style, but it is going to come back. Everything just comes back. Ten years [from now], you're going to see guys with that hair."