In the summer of 1990, when Sidney Crosby was still in diapers, the Pittsburgh Penguins drafted an 18-year-old scoring phenom from Czechoslovakia. That kid came over to the United States and proceeded to score more than 600 goals, bring back-to-back Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh and take home five Art Ross trophies—most of which he accomplished while sporting a curly mullet that made him look like he was auditioning to be a stunt-double in Lethal Weapon 3. That kid then packed his stuff and headed to Europe so he could get his kicks torturing goalies where Sarah Palin could watch from her backyard. That kid was Jaromir Jagr. Now, he’s a 39-year-old veteran scorer three years removed from the NHL and—for $3.3 million—a right-wing on the new-look Philadelphia Flyers and the black knight in GM Paul Holmgren’s game of chess.
Signing Jagr was a controversial move for the Flyers. And not just because he’s pushing 40 and hasn’t played in the NHL since a Heath Ledger film was topping the box office. It’s got Flyers fans in a state of emotional turmoil because we’ve been trained, for two decades now, to loathe the man. He was a Penguin, a Capital and a Ranger. In 85 career games against the Flyers he’s scored 40 goals, notched 66 assists and posted a +/- total of +23. Before Friday, Apollo Creed probably had a better shot getting a round of applause in South Philly. Now, he’s a familiar foe that has taken on an integral role on an otherwise unrecognizable Flyers team.
And, really, Flyers fans shouldn’t have much to worry about. For $3.3 million, the team has brought in one of the purest scorers in the history of the game. He’s posted at least 30 goals and 70 points in all but the first and last of his NHL seasons. The guy’s just five years removed from a 123-point season in which he posted a +/- of +34. And, it’s not like he’s been on the shelf. He’s been playing in a top-tier Russian league that features some of the best international players the game has to offer. Jagr may not be the skater or scorer he was during his ’98-99 Hart Memorial Trophy campaign, but he’ll come back to America and be able to play—and significantly contribute—at the NHL level.
He’ll bring with him his patented one-hand-on-the-stick puck carry. We’ll get to see his hustle in the offensive zone. We’ll hold our breath when he gets the puck on the crease—then, he’ll whip out that nasty deke, shake a goalie out of his pads and turn on the red light with his automatic finish—and we’ll erupt. We’ll boo when their goons take shots at him and then cheer when our goons pummel their goons.
Jaromir Jagr used to be a villain in Philadelphia. No one was pelting him with batteries, but his serving of the boo-berry pie was certainly more than a slice. He was a hated, but respected adversary. In 2011-12, he’ll don a sweater of orange and black and hope to play his role in ushering in a new era of Philly hockey—one where the goaltending is consistent, the partying is out of the press, the wins are frequent and the losses are few and far between. An era where a Jaromir Jagr goal leaves Rangers and Pens fans rolling their eyes and throwing their arms up in futility and disgust. An era where, for the first time in 37 years, Lord Stanley’s Cup is in Philly and the Flyers float down Broad Street.