“Jágr was a symbol of the era”: Pittsburgh retires legend’s jersey

Jaromír Jágr

Chants echoed the Pittsburgh Penguins’ home arena on Sunday for the jersey retirement of the legendary Czech ice hockey player Jaromír Jágr. Jágr – who played 11 years with the Penguins – returned to the city he calls his second home to see his number 68 jersey raised to the rafters. But what is the 52-year-old’s legacy today? That’s something I discussed with Michal Dimitrov, a hockey commentator and sports journalist at Czech Television.

Jaromír Jágr | Photo: Gene J. Puskar,  ČTK/AP

“From an early age, Jaromír Jágr was perceived as a big star. As a youngster, he was playing with players who were two, three, or four years older than him. He started playing in the Czechoslovak league at age 15, he was scoring goals from the very beginning, so it was clear a big star was evolving.

“Thanks to the fact that there was the Velvet Revolution, he was able to go to the NHL at the lowest possible age, he was only 18. He was acquired by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and he was lucky to have played together with Mario Lemieux, and other stars of the time. Of course he struggled during the first season, but from the second season, he was one of the biggest stars in the NHL.

“Later, he won the Art Ross Trophy five times, making him one of the best ice hockey players in history – not only from the Czech perspective, but from the world’s perspective.”

In 1990, this 18 year old kid who speaks no English moves to Pittsburgh and wins two Stanley Cups back to back. What was it like watching this from Czechia?

“Jágr was one of the symbols of the era. The fall of the Iron Curtain, the possibility of pursuing a professional sports career abroad – this was something new. Jágr arrived in the US at 18 with his long hair and big smiles, and he was the symbol of the era. Something had substantially changed, and you could pursue your career and be successful. In his case, it was ice hockey, and he did it on the world stage. This is what he symbolized for the Czechoslovak people – new opportunities for everybody. If you work hard, you can achieve anything you want to.”

I think that’s one thing he’s known for – his crazy work ethic. Things like doing 1,000 squats a day, growing up on a farm in Kladno. What do you think about that?

Jaromír Jágr | Photo: Gene J. Puskar,  ČTK/AP

“This is really an American success story. A young kid starting with exercises on a farm and spending his summers working on a farm. Even though these things have nothing in common with ice hockey, it helped him a lot. He was out in the fresh air working hard, using other muscles, but we can maybe even compare it with the career of Bobby Hull, who in the 1950s and 60s did a lot of similar exercises as Jagr.

“But this work ethic, passion, and love for the sport has brought him to the world stage level and ranks him amongst the best players ever.”

I’m curious if you watched the ceremony in Pittsburgh and what your thoughts were about it? I’m sure it was a proud moment for Czech hockey fans but also for the nation as a whole?

“Many people watched it live not only because they wanted to see Jágr, but also Mario Lemieux. We cannot forget the mother of Jaromír Jágr who was also there. This whole story of a mother going with her son in 1990 to Pittsburgh – not knowing the language, but going there for him. This is the story that Czechs have in mind, and they remember it. Now he’s being recognized officially, with his jersey hanging on the ceiling of the Pittsburgh arena, and that’s forever.

“When you say Pittsburgh, you think of Jágr. When you say Jágr and Pittsburgh – this was the time when Czech hockey was in its prime, not only with Jágr but with [Dominik] Hašek and other players as well. There were 70 players in the NHL from Czechia at the time, so it was really the prime of Czech hockey.”

What about his legacy as a club manager? Post his NHL career and after playing in the Russian league, he’s now the manager of the Kladno Knights. Can you tell me about this?

“There are some steps he has taken that fans of the club have not liked. He tried to acquire a goalie from Slovakia, who after the full scale Russian invasion of Ukraine went to play in the Russian league. It was a complicated situation, because Kladno’s best goalie was injured, but Jágr brought up Július Hudáček – a veteran Slovak player, who at least officially in public was not critical of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“And now Jágr, with his number 68 which was just hung in the Pittsburgh arena, which symbolizes the year of 1968 when the Soviet Troops invaded Czechoslovakia, acquires a goalie who played in the Russian top division. This seems to be very weird, and causes a dark shade on his career and on his legacy as a player, as a manager, but also as a personality in Czech society – one of the best Czech’s who have achieved so much. This is something that I think is problematic for his legacy.

“But on the other hand, this kid from the early ‘90s who was smiling, joking, and being witty, is gone, at least right for now. The question is how Jágr can be sustainable as a player, as an owner, and a manager at the same time.”

Jaromír Jágr | Photo: Gene J. Puskar,  ČTK/AP
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