Yohe: Jaromir Jagr, the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh — a love story 32 years in the making

It was always going to be confusing with Jaromir Jagr and the Penguins.

Jagr is a complex man and the Penguins franchise has always been so blessed and so cursed that nothing would be simple. And it never was.

On Feb. 18, however, everything will feel right.

Jagr has long wanted to return to Pittsburgh for the number retiring ceremony that has always been inevitable. The Penguins have always wanted it to happen, too. And yet there have been obstacles between these two, like the fact that Jagr still occasionally laces up the skates, and the Penguins’ recent ownership change, and the pandemic, among other things.

Finally, on a winter Sunday night at PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh and the bad boy prince of Penguins hockey can make their peace.

During his final road trip to Pittsburgh in 2017, Jagr was playing with the Florida Panthers. Instead of customarily taking the team bus from the Panthers hotel in downtown Pittsburgh to PPG Paints Arena, he opted to make the 20-minute walk through the city he once ruled. He signed a few autographs on the way, but more than anything, was just breathing Pittsburgh in. I suspect he knew it would be the final time he played before Penguins fans.

Earlier that season, Jagr spoke about Pittsburgh to a group of reporters after the formal interview setting was through. He was quiet but serious.

“You know,” Jagr said. “I really do love it here. Best time of my life. I never wanted to leave.”

To understand Jagr’s legacy in Pittsburgh is to understand that nothing came easily after his first two seasons. He has said that he thought the Penguins would win the Stanley Cup year after year, that he never could have imagined he’d touch the Cup for the last time at age 20.

We must consider, though, what Jagr had to endure.

He became the face of the Penguins in 1997, his English still broken and only age 25. By this time, the Penguins were running out of money, something that has often been a theme in franchise history.

A year later, Ron Francis was gone. By then, Lemieux had retired for the first time. Kevin Stevens and Larry Murphy were gone. Joey Mullen, too. And Rick Tocchet. Tom Barrasso would soon follow.

I don’t care how great you are, you aren’t winning championships without a great supporting cast. Ask Lemieux. Ask Sidney Crosby. Ask Wayne Gretzky. Hell, ask Connor McDavid.

The Penguins asked so much of Jagr during the late ’90s, despite surrounding him with a bunch of Kip Millers. That his greatness still led them to the playoffs every season speaks volumes of Jagr, who I rank as one of the five greatest players of all time.

At some point, though, I think the plight became overwhelming. Yes, he was the greatest player in the game. But the Penguins were showing up with a knife to a gunfight on so many nights against the NHL’s best teams. And Jagr knew it.

Think about the euphoria Jagr must have felt during those first couple of NHL seasons. Imagine being 18, and being on a hockey team with Lemieux, Mark Recchi, Francis, Mullen, Bryan Trottier, Barrasso, Paul Coffey and Larry Murphy. Jagr will someday be the ninth player from that team inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The ninth! And that doesn’t include Hall of Fame coach Bob Johnson, Hall of Fame General Manager Craig Patrick and Hall of Fame Director of Player Personnel Scotty Bowman.

Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis and head coach Eddie Johnston in 1994. (Denis Brodeur / NHLI via Getty Images)

Think about it. That’s the world Jagr entered. It was a hockey utopia. He never had to grow up during those years and it was largely encouraged that he remain the big, lovable kid.

Score goals. Gamble on football games. Acquaint yourself, quite visibly, with the Pittsburgh nightlife scene. Have your 21st birthday broadcasted on live television in Pittsburgh.

Live the life.

That’s what he did, language barrier be damned.

Jagr probably wasn’t ready to grow up by the late ’90s. He was still in his mid-20s and, suddenly, Lemieux and Francis were gone. He wore the ‘C.” His days in Pittsburgh consisted of scoring goals, working out and partying, while getting marginally better at speaking English.

Suddenly, he was the guy, and perhaps he wasn’t ready for that burden. Then, the Penguins ran out of money and ran out of a supporting cast. Jagr’s behavior began to change a bit, a brooding side of him on display.

So, he wasn’t perfect. But really, who cares?

He wasn’t as dignified as Lemieux, because no one could showcase that kind of royalty. He wasn’t perfectly humble and polite like Crosby because, again, people like that don’t come around very often.

But Jagr is probably more complex than those two combined, which is perfectly OK. In a sense, it makes him more interesting. He’s a philosopher by day, a partier by night, a mathematical genius, a gambler. Even in his 50s, he still plays hockey. And he still makes social media videos that make millions smile, because Jagr always lived the life that so many of us wished to live. He was James Bond except that people liked Jagr so much that he never had enemies.

The only tragedy here is that Jagr had to leave in 2001. There was no other way, in retrospect. While it’s sweet on some level that so many other cities got to experience Jagr, he was always meant to be a Penguin.

It’s the franchise of star power. The franchise of great stories. The franchise of championships. The franchise of roller coaster rides. Jagr and the Penguins were made for one another and, for 22 years, they’ve been separated.

I could only compare it to the idea of Evgeni Malkin leaving the Penguins in about 2014. Crosby is the face of the Penguins, the leader, this generation’s Mario. But what would these Penguins have been without Malkin all of these years? He’s the one who owns a visceral connection with the fan base. There is something special about that.

The same was once true of Jagr so very long ago.

Good for the Penguins for making this happen. Good for Jagr for making it happen, too. He still remembers all of the boos he received when wearing a Flyers jersey in Pittsburgh. It never offended him. He understood it. But I think it did make him very sad for a very long time.

He was always a Penguin on the inside. Always a Pittsburgher. In three months, he comes home, a very complicated love story coming full circle for a city to celebrate.

We will all be watching. We will all be entertained. There will only ever be one Jagr, and he’ll be back where he belongs.

(Top photo of Jaromir Jagr saluting fans after Game 1 of the 1992 Stanley Cup Final on May 26, 1992 at the Pittsburgh Civic Center: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images)

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