admitted Thursday that the safe decision this summer would have been to return to Pittsburgh, where he won two Stanley Cups and was viewed as a hockey icon on a level only slightly below Mario Lemieux
Maybe play 10-12 minutes a game on the Penguins' third line and see occasional power-play time. Maybe score a few more goals, sail into retirement at age 40 or 41, then return in a few months to see his No. 68 raised to the top of the Consol Energy Center ceiling to join that of Lemieux's No. 66.
Only Jagr didn't want to play it safe.
And that's why he knows he will be booed when he plays in Pittsburgh for the first time in Flyers' orange and black Thursday night.
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 30
SOG: 82 | +/-: 11
Jagr says he won't take it personally, understanding Penguins fans may never forgive him for signing with the franchise's biggest rival.
"The boos are part of the game," Jagr said during an expansive interview following the Flyers' optional morning skate Thursday. "Philly fans boo (Sidney) Crosby, and did he ever play for them? No. Did he do something to them? No. He just plays for Pittsburgh and he's good."
Jagr, who last played for the Penguins 10 years ago, tugged at his former fans' heartstrings this past summer while deciding where to play in the NHL following three seasons in the KHL. His agent, Petr Svoboda
, strongly hinted that he wanted to go back to the Penguins, but Jagr surprised everyone by choosing Philadelphia's $3.3 million offer rather than Pittsburgh's $2-million proposal.
While the 39-year-old Jagr knew his prime had long since passed, he believed he could be a top-line player on a top-line team, rather a role player.
If the Penguins' fans hate him for it, he's sorry.
"I felt the best chance I had to play, where I would feel more comfortable, was Philly," Jagr said. "The obvious choice would be Pittsburgh, where my idol is the owner, and I played here before and there wouldn't be that much pressure because people didn't expect anything."
But, Jagr explained, "I still wanted to play at a high level. And there were the choices I had, be comfortable and maybe sit and play 10 minutes a game. And I still want to play. I still love the game and I didn't think I'm ready yet to just sit around. I still can help the team somehow."
Jagr said no team guaranteed him ice time or a defined role, but he "read in-between the lines" when the Penguins suggested they first needed to see what forward Tyler Kennedy
did in free agency. Kennedy subsequently re-signed with Pittsburgh.
Pens brace for returns of Jagr, Talbot
Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer
and Maxime Talbot
return to Pittsburgh as members of the Flyers for Thursday's game -- Jagr's reception guarantees to be chilly, but it's less certain how Talbot will be greeted. READ MORE ›
"If someone tells you we've got to wait for Kennedy, nothing against him, and he was playing on the third line, if you wait for Kennedy before you try to sign me, where am I going to play?" Jagr said.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma
insists there would have been a significant role for Jagr, who has 11 goals and 19 assists in 31 games while playing with Scott Hartnell
and NHL scoring leader Claude Giroux
on the Flyers' top line.
But when Jagr did his own personnel breakdown during the summer, he didn't see it that way.
"With the talent they had, (Evgeni) Malkin, (Sidney) Crosby, (Jordan) Staal, those guys, they all want to play a lot of minutes," Jagr said. "I didn't think I would get on the power play. I didn't know how I was going to play. ... In Philly, it was a totally different team, a new team, a lot of young guys, nobody had anything guaranteed. Everybody (in Pittsburgh) has been here for five or six years, they won the Cup together, everything was set up. I don't think I would have had a chance to play -- or at least the way I wanted to play."
Lemieux, his former teammate and mentor, talked with him briefly this past summer, but the two have not talked since. Jagr hopes there is no carryover from his decision, either with Lemieux or Pittsburgh in general.
"Nothing has changed," Jagr said. "I'll always love it. Just because somebody is booing me doesn't mean I'm going to say bad things about the city. Why would I change? Mario, he showed me the big leagues. He was my idol since I was 15. He was the best player to ever play hockey and he still is. If he's the owner and maybe he's a little bit upset I didn't come here, it still doesn't change my mind how I feel about him."
Jagr also said he "played the best hockey I ever played, no question about it," in Pittsburgh, where he had 439 goals and 640 assists for 1,079 points in 806 career games. Only Lemieux had better numbers.
While Jagr developed a reputation for being mercurial during his later years in Pittsburgh, especially from 1997-2000 when Lemieux was retired, he said any moodiness resulted from dissatisfaction with his own game.
He felt a responsibility to live up to the $48 million contract the Penguins gave him in 1998, making him hockey's highest-paid player. He was traded to Washington in 2001 as the Penguins began to pare down their payroll.
"My goal was to be the best I can be and help the team. If I didn't play the way I wanted to play, I wasn't very happy," said Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring champion and former MVP. "Some people don't care how they play. ... I'm the opposite. I want to be the best every night, at least I wanted to be the best every night, and I felt the responsibility for the team. I was making the most money, and I felt that if I didn't play well, the team would not play well."
Jagr smiled while concluding the interview, saying Penguins fans probably won't feel any differently about him despite what how much love he professes to have for them and their city.
"The bottom line is I'm here, (they're) over there, I've got to come to the game, everybody is going to hate me and I still got to play the game," Jagr said. "Good luck to everybody."