To borrow from FDR, July 11th is a date that will live in infamy as far as Pittsburgh Penguins lore goes. On this date in 2001, the team pulled the trigger on dealing Jaromir Jagr to the rival Washington Capitals.
Even though the transaction was technically a trade, it could more accurately be described as an outright sale. The Pens included another marginal player that they simply didn’t/couldn’t afford to keep in Frantisek Kucera going with Jagr to Washington in exchange for three prospects and $4,999,999. The monetary amount carefully chosen to be the maximum the NHL would allow in those days.
On this anniversary, we’re not going to bemoan well-worn complaints about the meager return on the deal, or the ill-fated Ron Francis comparison that GM Craig Patrick put upon Kris Beech. Today we don’t want to talk in detail about how it didn’t work out for Jagr either and he became a professional nomad for the next 15 years in the NHL. This year, it is more fitting with recent developments to take a look at the enduring legacy of Jagr and what he still means to the Penguins, a special place with the organization and fans that has persisted and endured the test of time.
Recently, Jagr visited Pittsburgh to conduct a signing with fans. He and his business partner shared their surprise on social media that after all this time, the Pittsburgh fans still couldn’t get enough of Jagr. Even though it had been so long, fans poured into get pictures and autographs.
Absence has made the heart grow fonder and time has let old issues fade away, for most people anyways. Now that the sore subject about the 2011 return-that-wasn’t-meant-to-be is a distant memory, the Jagr nostalgia in the ‘Burgh is as hot as ever. (Don’t even suggest that Kris Letang or Marc-Andre Fleury has replaced Jagr on the franchise’s mythical Mount Rushmore. It is a premise that will be roundly rejected, trust me.)
It’s curious to know why exactly that would be. Jagr was a tremendous player for the Pens. He won four scoring titles as a member of the team, three Pearson (now Ted Lindsay) MVP awards and one Hart trophy - and that should have been more, but different topic for a different day. He was a key member of two Stanley Cup teams. All worthy of remembering.
Off the ice antics and aura added even more flair. Jagr’s style was tremendous and possibly notorious with frequently all denim everything that was very ‘90s and very, very Eastern European. The legendary stories about fast cars that he pushed to the limit all across Western PA still live on. The unruly and iconic flowing mullet. The salute after goals (that was inspired by Terrell Davis of the Denver Broncos, of all things). The standout number.
Jagr is rightfully revered and celebrated for his heroic as heroic can be in sports lore for putting the Pens on his back in the 1999 playoffs, finding a way to dig deep and help the No. 8 seed Penguins upset the No. 1 seed New Jersey Devils. Mired in bankruptcy, without the extra revenue of more playoff games it’s not even an exaggeration to say Jagr’s efforts helped keep the lights on and the Penguins in Pittsburgh. (And even in the early days of the Mario Lemieux/Ron Burkle ownership of 2001, note the team desperately needed the financial considerations of getting cash and dumping a $1.2 million contract in Kucera in Jagr’s trade to stay financially solvent).
Beyond that, there’s the timing in general at play in the bigger picture that might not have totally been explored or perhaps recognized. Jagr left Pittsburgh’s organization exactly two months before the terrorist attacks of September 11th changed the world. Though no one could have known it at the time, now when a Penguin fan recalls Jagr’s days with the Pens — they’re also inherently and possibly subconsciously also transported back to pre-9/11 days and a different era of Americana life.
Would it be the exact same feelings of nostalgia now had he departed a few years earlier or a few years later? To large degree all the other factors are what have cemented his legacy, but the timing of when can’t help but add even more sentimental elements of recalling an era of (mostly) good feelings or of a time when maybe it felt like the world was a little smaller, happier and peaceful.
With all these elements of timing, on-ice impact and off-ice flair combining, a clear enduring legacy means even though another trade anniversary is passing by but the legacy of the player and connection to the team and fans remains strong. Wild as it is, this anniversary means Jagr has been gone for now double the length of time of the 11 years he was a member of the Pens’ organization. Yet the phenomenon has only strengthened as time has gone by.
This spring’s happy homecoming for Jagr extended with an invite spear-headed by Penguins President of Business Operations Kevin Acklin to tour the arena and checking out the locker-room. As a native Pittsburgher himself and life-long Pens fan, Acklin knows and is fully onboard with giving Jagr the proper send off that he deserves. That long anticipated jersey retirement ceremony now looking more like “when” then “if” then ever before.
With relationships re-estalished and vibes high, Jagr took a page out of another iconic and deliciously nostalgic Arnold Schwarzenegger line before he left Pittsburgh.
After all the twists and turns, including the trading divorcing him from the franchise 22 years ago, it’s been quite the journey back. The emotional Jagr looked touched and pleased that his legacy has endured after so long. But considering what he’s meant to the team, city and most importantly the people who were along for the journey, maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise. Who says you can’t go back to your (second) home?