A Salute To Number 68! Saying goodbye to all-time great Jagr is not easy


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We Salute You Number 68! If this trulyis it for him in the NHL, thank you to one of the all-time best Jaromir Jagr for being a true great of the game. AP Photo via Getty Inages

If this truly is it for Jaromir Jagr, we are saying goodbye to a true hockey legend in every sense of the word. The ageless all-time great has been one in a million. A Eurostar who made hockey so much prettier to watch for fans and journalists.

He made the game look easy. After being drafted by the Penguins fifth overall in 1990, he came in as a Czech teenager and immediately teamed up with Mario Lemieux to win consecutive Stanley Cups. The chemistry between number 66 and number 68 remains poetry in motion. As a Rangers fan who had a couple of big Springs ruined by the dynamic duo, I could only admire them as I got older.

The ‘92 Patrick Division Final stung as a teenager in high school. It was easier to take the five-game second round ouster in ‘96 due to the Rangers winning a Cup in my senior year. The beauty in which Jagr worked with Lemieux was like fine art. Think of them as Renoir or Van Gogh putting the finishing touches on a memorable painting.

Priceless. That’s how I would describe the Lemieux/Jagr Era. The thing about it is what if Mario had not had Hodgkins Disease or missed all that time due to injuries? It’s a age old question. When they went for a three-peat, the underdog Islanders upset them in a physical seven-game series to advance to the Wales Conference Final where they lost to eventual champ Montreal. What if David Volek didn’t score the series winner at The Igloo? Might those Pens have gotten past Patrick Roy and made it three in a row? We’ll never know.

What about that ‘96 run? After Lemieux and Jagr torched the revamped Rangers, they were frustrated against the agitating defensive style of the trapping Panthers when clutching and grabbing stifled the Pens superior attack. It was a much tougher brand of playoff hockey. Eventually, Lemieux retired and left Jagr to take over the leadership role in Pittsburgh.

While it’s easy to point to the amazing goal Jagr scored against the Blackhawks in the repeat in which he undressed them before whipping a backhand past Ed Belfour, my fondest memory remains his heroic performance on one leg in the ‘99 Playoffs to stun heavily favored top seed New Jersey in the first round.

He returned for Game Six with a groin pull. What made Jagr so special was his strength. On one leg, he willed the Pens back to a seven-game upset. It was the way in which he did it that was truly magnificent. Facing the tight checking of future Hall of Famers Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer along with the nastiness of Bobby Holik, Jagr kept coming.

With his team trailing by a goal late in regulation, he found a way to stuff in a German Titov drop in front past all-time great Martin Brodeur to tie the game with 2:12 left. The reaction from the home crowd was what you’d expect. That it was on Fox called by Doc Emrick and John Davidson made it better theatre.

Still facing elimination in overtime, a dominant shift by the Jagr line resulted in the momentum turning game-winner. The Devils were unable to change due to turning over pucks in the neutral zone. It would be the death blow. Martin Straka pounced on a turnover and went around a Devil for a two-on-one. The anticipation could be felt as he centered across for a Jagr one-timer top shelf to miraculously win the game to an explosion in the arena.

Maybe that was enough to give his teammates the inspiration needed to go into hostile territory and finish the job. They did. And Jagr was a big part of it along with Straka and ex-Ranger Alexei Kovalev.

I think watching the way they won Game Six with a clearly hurt Jagr leading them with the tying and winning goals is what captivated me. My mind was blown. Coincidentally, that was also the season Jagr won his only Hart Trophy. He won his third Art Ross (second of four straight spanning ‘98-01) by leading the league with 127 points (44-83-127).

For a superstar who won five scoring titles, it’s astonishing that he only won one league MVP. Jagr finished runner-up four times including in ‘05-06 with the Rangers after accurately predicting that they would make the playoffs to end a near decade drought. At 33 going on 34, No. 68 was at his finest shattering single season franchise marks in goals (54) and points (123) to finish second in scoring to Hart recipient Joe Thornton (125). Jumbo Joe edged Jagr for his unreal production with the Sharks following a forgettable trade the Bruins made. It still says in this space Jagr did more with a team predicted by most observers to finish 30th. His astonishing play while playing with Straka and Michael Nylander along with a rookie goalie named Henrik Lundqvist changed the culture on Broadway. Even though they were swept by the rival Devils in a first round in which Jagr hurt himself going after Scott Gomez to be far from 100 percent, what he accomplished was unreal.

After being acquired from the Capitals for Anson Carter in ‘04 prior to the lockout, Jagr spent three full seasons in New York City. A place he wanted to play before the Pens exiled him to Washington in a odd deal that never made sense. Jagr was a Caps killer and he wasn’t motivated leading to criticism. They made the postseason once blowing a first round series to the Lightning.

Following time spent in the KHL with Omsk Avangard, a motivated Jagr was splendid in leading the Blueshirts to three straight postseasons. Playing with Czechs Straka, Petr Prucha, Michal Rozsival and Marek Malik, Jagr didn’t miss one regular season game while pacing the team in scoring each year with 123 points, 96 and 71 respectively between ‘06-08.

It’s astonishing to think just how close the ‘06-07 Rangers were to upsetting the Sabres in a very tight second round series. After losing the first two in Buffalo, behind Jagr they rallied to take the next two at MSG to set up a pivotal Game Five in Western New York. In a very close to the vest game in which Lundqvist didn’t blink before Ryan Miller, Straka beat the Buffalo netminder with over two minutes left to give the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead. I remember being unable to contain my excitement. Could they really pull this off?

But just when it seemed they had it, Chris Drury tied it with 7.7 seconds left to force overtime. It was the closest they came. Maxim Afinogenov broke Ranger hearts when his power play goal in sudden death won it. Despite a great effort from Jagr in a wild Game Six, it wasn’t enough as Buffalo advanced to the Conference Finals. I was heartbroken. That’s how much I wanted to see that team win with Jagr and Lundqvist, who is still searching for his first Cup with a mediocre roster about to be broken up. To put it in proper perspective, he’ll turn 36 on March 2. Jagr will be 46 on February 15.

After one final season in ‘07-08 in which he avenged a first round loss to the Devils with a much better performance along with the same Gomez he injured himself against along with the same Drury who did them in the previous year, the Jagr Era ended in disappointment in Round Two. It came against his first team, the Pens, who were now led by a new dominant duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Even though they battled hard, they were simply outgunned by a Pittsburgh team that added Marian Hossa in five games with a crushing conclusion. Hossa ended the series in OT. A bit of revenge for being swept the year before with the Thrashers. Remember when Atlanta had hockey again?

When he hit the open market, Jagr wanted to return but still was asking for top dollar. GM Glen Sather decided to go in a different direction. Instead, Jagr kept a promise he made by returning to Russia to play for Omsk Avangard in the KHL. He would spend the next three seasons there.

Which leads me to the horrible tragedy Jagr experienced as a teammate of former Rangers first round pick Alexei Cherepanov. On a night we were getting ready to leave for MSG, I saw the news flash at the bottom of the screen while Dad and Justin watched a special on Mark Messier. I couldn’t believe it. The teenage prospect who rated high as a potential goalscorer died after a game due to chronic myocardial ischemia. A heart condition that Omsk team doctors were unaware of. He passed out on the bench. The trainers tried to revive him. It’s criminal that they didn’t have a working defibrillator. It could’ve saved his life. So could have a ambulance at the arena. They had to wait before the ambulance came in a last ditch effort to rescue him. It’ll be 10 years on October 13 later this year. Only 19.

There’s no sense wondering what Cherepanov could’ve been capable of. I just wish his life could’ve been saved. Life is precious. Imagine what his family has been through since.

What if Jagr didn’t go back to Russia? He came back to the NHL at 39 with the Flyers. He didn’t miss a beat producing 19 goals and 35 assists for 54 points in 73 games on a line with Claude Giroux. He was more playmaker in doing in his former team the Pens in a Flyers first round win that was memorable for the amount of fights and penalty minutes. Jagr registered a goal and seven assists in the 2012 Playoffs. Sadly, it would be his last postseason goal.

Despite reaching the Stanley Cup Final with the Bruins for the first time since he was 20, Jagr was snake bit in that playoff run during 2013. He still was a very effective puck possession player in the offensive zone producing 10 assists. But he couldn’t finish. I don’t know how many goalposts he hit. But it was a lot. Boston would lose a closely fought series to Chicago in gut wrenching fashion. The Blackhawks stunned the Bruins by tying and scoring the Stanley Cup clincher in the late stages of Game Six. It was astonishing.

Following Boston, he spent time with the Devils, Panthers and Flames. The ageless wonder still amazed crowds with his fitness. Always possessing a strong work ethic along with a winning personality (have you ever seen a better interview for hockey), he still had enough left to pace the Devils and Panthers in scoring.

In ‘13-14, Jagr got to team with Brodeur as the two 40-something legends had a lot of fun together even though the team missed the playoffs. At 42, Jagr totaled 24 goals, 43 assists and 67 points in a full 82. His play was still at a high level. The following year, with his role decreasing, he was traded to the Panthers. He proved the Devils wrong by again discovering the fountain of youth. Taking Sasha Barkov under his wing along with Jonathan Huberdeau, they formed a superb line. In ‘15-16, Jagr paced the Cats in points with 66 (27-39-66) points to lead them to the playoffs. But after winning the Atlantic Division, they were upset by the Islanders in a closely fought first round in six games. Jagr had only two helpers.

After falling to 16 goals and 30 assists for 46 points in ‘16-17, Jagr wasn’t brought back by Florida. They made a lot of changes which haven’t panned out, also letting Jonathan Marchessault go along with Reilly Smith to the Vegas Golden Knights. If only Jagr had wound up there instead of Calgary.

It never worked out. Despite ranking third all-time in games played (1,733) trailing only Mark Messier and Gordie Howe,  third all-time in goals (766) behind Wayne Gretzky and Howe and sitting second all-time in points (1,921) behind the Great One, it looks over.

With Jagr clearing waivers and being assigned to hometown Kladno of the Czech Republic, he will go home and play the rest of the season before his biggest fans. As much as I love him along with countless others, just imagine the excitement for his own country. One more time to see the legendary No. 68 lace them up in the same place he started his brilliant hockey career as a 16-year old. It’s amazing that 40 years later, he’s still playing.

For how long? No one knows. Nobody loves the game more than Jagr. When I think of hockey, I am reminded of him with his classic mullet flowing as he left us breathless with his skating, dekes, toe drags, sweet finishes and scintillating passes. A prideful man with a flamboyant personality that really shined through in his rebirth as a Ranger and was again on display for Devil fans to admire. He’s the opposite of boring. If only there were more Jagrs. We had the Traveling Jagrs who he posed for a photo op with with the Flames. He always leaves you with a smile and laugh. That’s who he is. He made The Traveling Jagrs night.

It’s hard to write this because I don’t want it to end this way. Maybe it’s selfish. But 22 games, one goal against Detroit and six assists is not how I envisioned it. We never do. We want the greatest players to go out on top. It’s so rare in sport. It could happen in tennis with Roger Federer, who just won his record 20th grand slam in Australia. Michael Jordan could’ve gone out that way with his steal and final shot beating Utah for the Bulls sixth NBA championship. But he came out of retirement with Washington. Even Lemieux returned. For a memorable year during ‘00-01, he was unbelievable with Jagr in what amounted to No. 68’s final run with the Pens. A lopsided Conference Final loss to the Devils. Lemieux stuck around and injuries again forced him to hang it up. Brett Hull hung around too long and cried when he called it a career with the Coyotes.

There’s no easy way to see our heroes go out. So I’ll leave you with this. Let’s appreciate greatness. Jaromir Jagr will forever be etched in hockey lore. The greatest European to ever play the game and a all-time great.

If this is it, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m so glad I got to see you play live for the Rangers. I wish you could’ve come back one more time.

Thank You Jagr 68!

 

A Longtime Fan and proud owner of a ‘99 home white Pens jersey,

Derek Felix, New York Puck

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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