JAGRS LAST WORDS ABOUT THE PENGUINS, from this years playoffs:
The Pittsburgh media wanted to hear JagrÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s take on returning to Pittsburgh, the team he left under unhappy circumstances in 2001. He looked relaxed and wanted to explain the circumstances from that time, why he asked to be traded, a move the Penguins fans have interpreted as betrayal.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“We went through the tough times with bankruptcy and the team didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t have a lot of money,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿¾ Jagr said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“Marty Straka, Robert Lang, Alex Kovalev were free agents, all three of them. We werenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t going to be able to sign all of them. I thought, itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to be a lot easier for a team to trade one guy than let go three guys. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s why I made the step. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s going to be easier for the organization. If they lost all three of them, I didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t think it was going to be good for the team.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿¾
Jagr did not try to defend his actions at the time and he said when he did talk, he struggled to express his feelings in English.
He emphatically denied one of the impressions people had, that he did not want to play again with Mario Lemieux when he came back after his first retirement that year. Lemieux was JagrÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s boyhood idol, the leader of the team that won Stanley Cups in 1991 and Ã¢â‚¬Ëœ92.
Ã¢â‚¬Å“Without him, I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t be playing right now,Ã¢â‚¬ï¿¾ Jagr said. Ã¢â‚¬Å“I learned everything from him. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m going to still respect him until I die. You have respect the players, the teachers that you learned from. Without him, without being drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins, without seeing him play, who knows where I would be? Maybe I wouldnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t play hockey at all.Ã¢â‚¬ï¿¾
Pittsburgh fans have long memories. They remember his lament during that final season that he was "dying alive" in Pittsburgh and they still seethe.
Jagr, though, tried to rebuild a bridge to the fans Friday morning after the Rangers' game-day skate in preparation for the opener of their Eastern Conference semi-final against the Penguins. He said the real reason he wanted the trade was to allow the cash-strapped Penguins to sign three other stars and some of the things he said to precipitate the deal with the Washington Capitals were youthful folly combined with his struggles to speak English after arriving from the Czech Republic.
"It happened eight years ago and nobody knew the truth," Jagr said. "Yes I did, I told [general manager] Craig Patrick I wanted to be traded. But this is the real reason I did it.. I was sad when they traded me.
"Maybe I could have pushed them to find the money or maybe get the new arena. But when you are a young player you don't think like a businessman. You don't understand how tough it is to make money."
In the 2000-01 season, the Penguins had just come through their second bout of bankruptcy. They only remained in Pittsburgh because Mario Lemieux found the financing to take over the team and later that season he came out of retirement, in part because the team desperately needed a gate attraction to stay solvent.
By then, however, Jagr was in a long public sulk. He fought with his coaches and teammates and the media.
Now, he says, looking back with the wisdom of 36-year-old eyes, it was all done to keep forwards Alexei Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang in Penguins uniforms. All three were set to become free agents at the end of the 2000-01 season and Jagr said he knew the team needed them more than him. After Lemieux made his comeback halfway through the season, Jagr said the team could afford to lose him.
"It was impossible to sign all of them but if we didn't sign them, we didn't have a chance to do anything," Jagr said. "I thought it would be a lot easier for the team to trade one guy than [get rid of] three guys.
"I just wanted to make it easier for the team plus there was no reason to keep me when Mario came back. I thought it was going to be good for the team."
That is where Jagr's explanation gets a little thin. Thanks to Lemieux's comeback, the Penguins did advance to the 2001 Eastern Conference final, which made them a little more stable financially. They did manage to sign Kovalev, Straka and Lang but this did not bring much success.
The Penguins failed to make the playoffs for the next four seasons and fell to the bottom of the league. Lang stuck around for one more season, Kovalev for two and Straka for three. Straka is now Jagr's centre on the Rangers and it may be more than coincidence that Jagr is playing his best hockey in years.
"Some comments were made," Jagr said of his departure in the summer of 2001. "You've got to understand, English is not my first language. I was kind of reacting to my situation when I was in Pittsburgh, with the coach [Ivan Hlinka]. It was before Mario came back from retirement and we played together.
"The coach tried to put three guys together. They were great guys, no question it was good line Ã¢â‚¬â€ Lang, Straka and Kovalev."
The problem was. Jagr said, that left no centre on the team good enough to play with him. At least not until Lemieux came back.
"There was no one else left on the team, and a lot of guys expected me to have the same numbers, the same goals," he said. "It's impossible when you don't have a set-up man. Everything changed when Mario came back. I scored a lot of goals because of him."
By the time Jagr left, his relationship with Lemieux was stretched thin. But, he says, he will always have great admiration for Lemieux.
"Without him, I wouldn't be playing right now," Jagr said. "I learned everything from him. I'm still going to respect him until I die."