Tuesday night is a big deal. For the first time since February 10, 2008, Jaromir Jagr will play hockey at Verizon Center. Since he is perhaps the most reviled person in Washington Capitals history, there’s no way this doesn’t get ugly.
As a Pittsburgh Penguin, Jaromir Jagr finished eight seasons with more than 90 points, ran flak for Mario Lemieux, and beat the hell out of the Caps in five of six playoff series. Then something even worse happened: he became a Washington Capital.
Fans can have honest disagreement about what the dark days of the Washington Capitals actually were. No wait; they can’t. That first season going a pathetic 8-67-5 doesn’t come close to unbridled misery of the Jaromir Jagr era (October 6, 2001 – January 21, 2004). It began like this: Acquired from a broke Pittsburgh team, Jagr would earn eleven million dollars a year as a Capital.
But he never hit 40 goals, he never hit 90 points, and he never hit other skaters (okay, maybe a few times). Like an incompetent cowboy wrangling through the wilderness, Jagr went his own way. Even paired with the esteemed Robert Lang and given oodles of ice, Jagr was a catastrophic waste of time and resources. He set off a chain of disastrous events that escalated until the Fire Sale and the coming of Alex Ovechkin.
But at the time, owner Ted Leonsis touted the acquisition as if it were the Caps’ entrance to the big time:
This puts us on the national scene, because we now have a really, really great hockey team. I hope this knocks the chip off people’s shoulders in Washington and they come out and buy tickets. Now’s the time to prove this is a hockey town, that it loves sports, and we’re as good a team as any others. [Washington Post, July 12, 2001]
Jagr had been poison to D.C. through the 1990s, but the organization (including GM George McPhee) considered him the missing puzzle piece. This consideration somehow overlooked the declining speed of a once-gifted skater; his dependence on the 90’s biggest playmaker, Mario Dagnabbit Lemieux; and his diminishing constitution and increasing weight.
The Caps never won the Southeast Division with Jagr. They saw only one playoff series, winning only two games in it. Jagr played hurt. Also: poorly.
Two and a half years later, Leonsis and McPhee agreed to eat $20M of Jagr’s bill and ship his ass up to Manhattan… where the bastard started producing again, putting up 123 points in 05-06.
Jaromir Jagr set back the Washington Capitals by half a decade. Jaromir Jagr rendered unto dust a plucky Capitals fanbase. Jaromir Jagr frittered away tens of millions of dollars. Jaromir Jagr tainted the autumn of Peter Bondra’s career. Jaromir Jagr skulked and dissembled throughout his time in Washington and never embraced the fans.
But now Jaromir Jagr is forgotten. We found scoring in Alex Ovechkin, fortitude in Nick Backstrom, leadership in Chris Clark and Sergei Fedorov and Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble and a half dozen other guys.
Whatshisname with the mullet shadow and bad attitude? Who cares.
After a few years getting paid truckloads of money in the KHL, word circulated that Jagr was interested in finishing his career back in America. The rumors washed over us like Omsk rainwater off the hood a freshly waxed Ferrari. Somebody else’s problem, we thought. We’ve already got our team.
Jagr flirted with Pittsburgh, but he ultimately flaked out and spurned them in favor of the Philadelphia Flyers, who were willing to pay more and had fractionally fewer disabled superstars. Jagr is now making $3.3 million dollars to play hockey in that putrid orange sweater. He’s already got 10 goals on the season without getting much time on ice.
Jagr has now played on four of the seven teams in what must inevitably become known as The Jagr Conference. Because that’s the kind of sick world in which we live.
And on Tuesday night, Jaromir Jagr comes home. Not his real home. Not even his fake home. D.C. is just some place from which Jagr took $40 million dollars and change; the pride of hockey faithful; and one huge, steaming, metaphorical dump of hockey.
Welcome back, 68.
Photo credit: Robert Beck/SI