By Dejan Kovacevic, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Saturday, July 2, 2011
It's as if Jaromir Jagr woke up Friday morning after dreaming of fans welcoming him at Pittsburgh International, of donning a Penguins sweater again, of reuniting with Mario Lemieux, of being handed the Stanley Cup by Sidney Crosby, of watching his No. 68 raised to the rafters ... and then thought, "Hmmm ... how can I really stick it to those people?"
I realize, though, that this isn't at all what happened.
Rather, it's always about the money with Jagr. Once a mercenary, always a mercenary.
When Jagr accepted a one-year, $3.3 million offer from Philadelphia, he spurned not only the Penguins — who offered $2 million — but also the Detroit Red Wings, another perennial contender, and the Montreal Canadiens, where his Czech friend Tomas Plekanec plays. So you know this much for sure: Jagr's decision had nothing to do with winning, a coach's system, a comfort level and certainly not legacy. The Flyers simply swooped in Thursday and tossed more cash on the table.
This wasn't about greener pastures. It was about going for the green.
Jagr genuinely has grown up in some ways at age 39. I've seen it myself, on and off the ice. But he evidently never passed the point where he bases all his decisions on money. Sure, he could have stayed in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League and been paid even more, around $4 million, and it would have been tax-free to help cover those Siberian heating bills.
I'm sure that's going to be part of his defense.
But that doesn't change this about Jagr's choice of NHL teams: By the end of next season, he will have made roughly $101 million in his career, not counting endorsements and other earnings. The difference between the Flyers' and Penguins' offers was $1.3 million. That's a ton of money to most of us, but it's roughly 1 percent of everything Jagr has made. It's a penny on his dollar.
Small wonder the Penguins were furious, even before learning Jagr chose Philadelphia.
Lemieux and a handful of his closest acquaintances had been guardedly optimistic through Tuesday, according to multiple sources. Some went so far as to express that an agreement or understanding was in place. All that soured Wednesday, especially into the night, when the Penguins heard of Jagr's lingering flirtations with Detroit and Montreal.
General manager Ray Shero, who essentially emptied the team's pockets to ensure Jagr would get a respectable offer, was said to be livid.
"It didn't really feel right," Shero said of that stage.
On the Penguins' level, this was outright betrayal. It would have been one thing for Jagr to enter free agency and acknowledge that the best fit or highest bidder would win. It's quite another to tell Lemieux directly that he wants to return to play out of respect for him. And it was worse still that agent Petr Svoboda had the nerve to say that Jagr's "heart is in Pittsburgh" as recently as Thursday. Even while Jagr and Svoboda — and believe me, Jagr always calls his own shots — were finagling with the Flyers.
As for the Penguins' fans, suffice it to say they had a small taste of how Cleveland felt after LeBron James' epic blowoff.
It's not the same scope, of course. James is the NBA's dominant talent, born and raised in Akron. But I would rank this Jagr snub as more insulting than, say, Marian Hossa's leap to the Red Wings in 2008. Hossa left after a couple months because he thought he had a better chance to win. That is hardly some moral crime, even if Hossa's prediction proved painfully wrong.
What Jagr did was different: Our city has 446 bridges, and one of its greatest athletes just burned them all.
Sure, we forgave Terry Bradshaw's foibles, and we stopped tossing batteries at Dave Parker. But those two and others eventually came back and made things right. I don't see that happening with Jagr. I don't see the circumstance in which that No. 68 ever gets raised.
No, the only numbers of consequence regarding Jagr in these parts will be 12-29. That's the date the Flyers make their first trip into town next season, and it could be quite the scene.
Unless someone offers Jagr a couple more bucks to be outside hawking T-shirts.
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