Just 20, Jagr wastes no time filling skates of hero Lemieux

May 15, 1992|By Joe Lapointe | Joe Lapointe,New York Times

PITTSBURGH -- The number on his back, 68, is unique in the National Hockey League, but that isn't the only distinctive thing about Jaromir Jagr.

There is also the mop of hair flowing from the back of his helmet and flopping in the manmade breeze. It is a hairstyle that might remind people of the year 1968, four years before Jagr was born in Kladno, Czechoslovakia.

His number, Jagr said, "is about history in Czech."

"And it's a number I like," said Jagr, the Pittsburgh Penguins right wing who is emerging in these Stanley Cup playoffs as a marquee performer in the NHL.

Jagr scored the winning goals in both Game 5 and Game 6 of the second-round series with the New York Rangers, won by Pittsburgh four games to two. He also scored on a penalty shot in Game 5 and he has six goals and eight assists in 13 playoff games.

With Mario Lemieux still idled by a broken hand, Jagr is the most dynamic offensive threat for the Penguins, who open their third-round series with the Boston Bruins on Sunday night in Pittsburgh.

At the age of 20, Jagr is finishing his second season in the league and in North America. In many ways, he represents hockey's new ice age. As Communism crumbled in the former Soviet Union and its allied nations, Jagr was one of about a dozen new kids from the bloc to immigrate to North America.

Back in 1968, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union had plenty of good hockey players, but none of them played in the NHL.

Although allies, Prague was more liberal than Moscow. After reformers tried to change the system during the Prague Spring of 1968, the Warsaw Pact nations, led by the Soviet Union, invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the movement. It is a chapter of modern history that Czechoslovak parents teach their children.

"Jaromir [pronounced YAR-o-mir] loves his country; he didn't come here to get away from it," said Michael Barnett, his agent. "He came here for hockey."

Barnett refers to him by the nickname Jags, which is pronounced Yoggs.

When Jagr [pronounced YAH-ger] was a boy, he went to a junior tournament and saw the teen-age Lemieux, then playing for Canada. From then on, he modeled his style after Lemieux, who blends size and strength in a finesse game of skating, passing and shooting.

Although Lemieux is a right-handed center and Jagr is a left-handed right wing, there are many similarities. Lemieux's number is 66, two digits lower than Jagr's.

Lemieux is taller than most hockey players at 6 feet 4. Jagr is 6-2. Lemieux is heavy for a hockey player at 210 pounds. Jagr is 208. A sign in the Civic Arena on Wednesday night pointed out another eerie similarity. It scrambled the letters of Jagr's first name to say "JAROMIR (EQ) MARIO JR."

"Lemieux is like a God to Jagr," said Jan Smid, a correspondent for Czechoslovak State Radio who interviewed Jagr at length on Wednesday. "Mario is like a teacher to him outside the ice as well."

Jagr's English skills are rapidly improving. In English, he tends to give short answers, punctuated by smiles and giggles. When complimented on his English, he replied with the trendy, "Not!"

He turned serious only when someone mentioned another coach, Bob Johnson, who led the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup championship last spring, but died of brain cancer last fall.

"Badger was best coach in my life," Jagr said, pausing with emotion between words and describing Johnson by a nickname. "He was No. 1." Then he smiled, and quickly shifted gears.

"That's it guys," he said. "I'm tired of English."

The veterans on the Penguins say he isn't as emotional as when he was a rookie. Gordie Roberts, the 34-year-old defenseman, said, "Right now, he's got so much innocence about him.

"He even loves to practice," said Roberts. "It's fun to see him in this state of mind right now. In a couple years, when he is making bigger money, he will probably realize the game is a little more of a business than anything else."

Barnett, the agent, said that Jagr is making "a little under $200,000," which is a bargain for a player of his talent. Jagr, a first-round draft choice in 1990, scored 32 goals and 37 assists in the regular season after posting totals of 27 and 30 in those categories in his rookie season. He has a year left on the contract and one option season after that.

Like many skilled players from Europe, Jagr is lightly penalized, with only 76 minutes in 150 regular-season games.

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