ESPN The Magazine
 Friday, October 6
Hip Czech
By Shaun Assael
ESPN The Magazine

ESPN The Magazine
A brief history lesson: On Aug. 21, 1968, tanks rumbled into Prague, the capital of what was then Czechoslovakia, to crush what had become a rocking little party. The city was part of the far-flung Soviet Empire, and also part of a grand experiment. The Communists had decided to lighten up-you know, let a few flowers bloom, let a couple of writers speak their minds, that kind of thing. Except that it all got too groovy. A nervous Kremlin sent in tanks, and for the next 21 years, everyone moped.

A convenient lesson in numerology: Jaromir Jagr's two grandfathers were jailed after the crackdown of '68, which is why he wears the number on his Penguins jersey. But upside down and reversed, 68 turns into 89, another fateful year in Czech history. That was the year the Soviet Empire started to crumble and tens of thousands of Czechs rallied for freedom near Wenceslas Square.

Though the marchers had many aspirations, it's probably safe to say that opening a sports bar on the square wasn't high on the list. But that is what Jagr, a child of the revolution, has done. His restaurant is a hockey theme bar with a massive projection TV in the middle, and on the anniversary of the '68 invasion, No. 68 is there, leaning into a plate of tortellini and marveling at how, after all these years, Americans still don't understand him. "In Pittsburgh, people think that here in the Czech Republic we're living in the streets and begging for money," he says, shaking his head in mock wonder.

Prague is a pastel-colored place filled with 11th-century castles and architectural elegance. And because it lies in the Czech province of Bohemia, birthplace of the bohemians, the street life is a weird mix of '60s San Francisco and '90s Silicon Valley -- all very international and hippie-dippy. But for the hockey-crazed locals who don't Yahoo, this is Jagr's town. This summer, the tabloids had a field day following him and his current squeeze, Andrea Veresova, the reigning Miss Slovakia, to movie openings, gallery shows, even to Don Giovanni at the City Opera. When the daily newspaper, Blesk, needed a color photo to accompany an interview with Veresova ("Exclusive: Jagr's My Angel!"), it picked one of him in a tuxedo, not a Penguins jersey.

As Jagr bounds into his bar in a shiny gray shirt and slacks, he vibes like your typical celeb restaurant owner, jangling the change in his pocket and taking in the room with a jumpy glance. Sliding onto a stool, he drops his gargantuan forearms on the bar and, in an accent that's part De Niro and part Emeril, he tells a customer, "Try my chicken fingers. They're great."

This is the new-model Jagr, circa age 28, the pampered hockey prodigy as emerging wheeler-dealer. The man who said Pittsburgh would never be his second home, who came to America a decade ago not speaking a word of English, has blossomed into a cross-cultural imperialist. Now, his English is nearly perfect and his business instincts are keenly entrepreneurial.

It's a huge step for a man-child whose physical genius always ensured there would be someone to coddle him: his parents, his adoptive city, his girlfriends, his teammates. Oh, the new Jagr hasn't completely eclipsed the old. Even after cutting his famously long locks, he still looks like he should be carrying an algebra textbook. But that face is the face of North American hockey. And on the ice, as in business, Jaromir wants to be the boss.

The beauty of watching him now is that he's still a work in progress. Last season, he returned from a 12-game absence due to a strained hamstring and then overcame a bruised upper back to stun the heavily favored Capitals, kicking them out of the first round of the playoffs. When his Pens stole the first two games of the next series from the top-seeded Flyers, they were the talk of the NHL. But the Flyers battled back to win the third game, setting the stage for an epic Game 4 that dragged across five overtimes. If any of Jags' five OT shots had found the net, the momentum probably would have carried the Pens into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since Mario Lemieux retired and left Jags in charge. But none did-and the Flyers rolled on to win the series.

The last image we had was of an exhausted Jagr flubbing a sweet pass in the sixth and final game-the kind he usually swats with his soda-can-size wrists. His frustrations exploded in an uncharacteristically ugly, blindside punch to the head of Flyers center Kent Manderville, knocking him from the game.

But by the time Jagr boarded his flight back to the Czech Republic, he was already missing the ice. "During the playoffs, you're so tired, you don't care," he says. "You get so tired you don't realize that you've lost. Then four days later, you watch the other teams and you can't believe how mad you are. It doesn't take me more than a week to love the game again."

The summer is nearly over and the playoffs are ancient history as Jagr sips a Baileys with cream in a quiet restaurant at the end of a cobblestone alley. A storm rages outside, but the dozen men inside are too absorbed in their Czech-only conversation to notice. They're going on about friends whose once-promising junior hockey careers were ruined by booze. Every time another wasted talent gets mentioned, Jagr clucks his tongue in the manner of a town clerk cataloging obituaries.

Sometimes it seems as if he's played hockey, gambled, or gone to school with half the population of Prague -- and that many of them run into him at one time or another without much effort. He doesn't have handlers or a posse. He doesn't even have tinted windows in his black Daiwa sedan. Tonight, he's out with a pudgy friend from high school who, Jagr jokes, "used to get beat up a lot. I protected him." His sense of celebrity is unaffected.

But as much as Jagr loves these nights out in Prague -- "When you're famous, you have to take advantage of it," he says playfully -- he chafes at living in the big city. That's why his evenings end with a 40-minute drive past the grain silos back to Kladno, an industrial town of 80,000 that's seen its best days. A steel plant sprawling out on the main road hasn't welcomed a work shift since the Communists left more than a decade ago, and the center of the city owes more to Levittown than to Leningrad. Only the rows of rainbow-colored terrace gardens soften the vista of boxy dwellings.

The stone house he shares with his parents and sister, an economist, lies in a small, unpretentious subdivision that might as well be in Dallas. It's easily seen from a public bus route on which kids ride their bikes. Which raises the obvious question: Can't the NHL's highest-paid player afford something a bit more, uh, Robin Leach-y?

"Why do I need more than this?" Jagr says with a sweep of a hand that takes in a pretty little vegetable garden and a pen of clucking chickens. "I was lucky. I made my money early. I don't waste a lot of time thinking about it. In America, it's all money and job first. Here it's family first."

Of course, things are a wee bit tight in his little suburban pastoral. His old man grumbles that his son "likes the free service." His mom, who also lives with him in Pittsburgh during the season as his personal assistant, suggests that "it might be nice to have a little more privacy at home, just once in a while." But Jags isn't wired for solitude. "I need people around me to keep things interesting," he says.

All concerned know this is temporary. His girlfriend, Andrea -- a part-time law student he met at a tennis tournament in Slovakia, then followed to Milan -- is already eyeing land for something larger in the hills. "Jaromir likes tennis so much," she purrs. "He really needs a pool and a court."

In those hills, you can see where the farm collectives once ruled, forgotten places where earlier generations lived with propaganda and productivity goals. One of Jaromir's grandfathers spent two years behind bars for refusing to join the Standard Farming Cooperative, emerging after a general amnesty painfully thin and without teeth. The other owned his own farm until the Soviets cynically ratcheted up his goals so high that he just couldn't keep it. He also went to prison for refusing to work for the state and died in 1969, on the 30th anniversary of Nazi occupation. Jagr's parents wanted to go to college, but the state denied them because of their family history. They raised their two children in a farmhouse with rusty tools and old tractors, clucking roosters and geese flying around an earthen barn with cutout windows.

As a child, Jaromir ran up and down the hillsides and memorized every stone on the five-mile route that he took to get to the 35 acres of land the Jagrs farmed in their spare time. (That accounted for the prodigious amounts of food that were always on the table.) When he came back at night, he played pass the puck with his dog in a dusty courtyard under the moonlight. By the time he left for America, he was a teen who'd spent his entire life sleeping in a room that overlooked a feed pen and a hayloft and tractor bay. He spoke so little English that his American coaches would simply point to a chalkboard and say, "You here." Now that he's returned with a beauty queen in one hand and a cell phone in the other, you suddenly see how he came upon the body that would stun scouts who'd never seen anyone as big and skilled emerge from the Czech Republic.

The farm work he did here gave him his forearms. The thousand deep knee-bends that he did every day beside his grandma's rocking chair gave him his legs. Genetics gave him his 6'2", 240-pound frame. As for his ambition: "All my dad did was yell at me on the ice," Jaromir says, laughing. "He was sick. Only the fear that he was there made me play better." Jaromir Jagr Sr. never went for the bleak message delivered by other hockey dads-the ones who tried frightening their kids into practicing by taking them to the factory gates to watch rows of beaten-down workers. Instead, he poured his hockey dreams into his son by taking him to practice at 5 a.m., the only time the lone rink in Kladno was empty. But if there was one lesson that transcended hockey, one that Jagr understood from the time he was a boy, it was that he came from a family of men whose potential had been stolen from them. The Czech novelist Milan Kundera once wrote, "The characters in my novels are all unrealized possibilities." It's a line Jaromir uses to describe his father, who quit playing amateur hockey at 17 because of bad knees and worked at a construction job he hated.

So Jags turned himself into a child closer. In second grade, he was winning scoring titles. At 10, he was such an accomplished skater that defensemen were breaking bones as they flew past him, unable to line up a hit. At 11, too young by league rules to play on Kladno's junior team, he went to a renowned sports doctor, where he was wired to an exercise bike from head to toe. Stunned at the readouts, the doctor proclaimed that Jaromir was fitter than some pros and gave him clearance to ascend. By 13, he was already coming home with slash marks on his wrists because he'd become a marked man. But in building the perfect player, Jaromir Sr. left one thing out of his blueprint. "I was always the youngest, the baby," Jaromir Jr. says. "I never had a chance to know what it was to be a leader."

There is a casino on the edge of town where the manager greets Jags with a knowing hello, offering him the private table of his choice. Jagr picks an American roulette table in a corner of the neon-tinged room, orders another Baileys with cream, and eases onto a stool. He starts rolling 5000-crown ($125 U.S.) markers onto the felt grid, waits to see where they land, then sprinkles small stacks of 500-crown ($12 U.S.) chips around them. "I always have to be ready to fall down," he says, as one of the 5000-crown markers tumbles to the felt. "That's where there's so much excitement. To me, the pressure is like sex. I have to be on the edge. To be secure is to have no life at all."

Those 500-crown chips he's arraying around the main marker are like his teammates -- in his orbit. Since Lemieux hung up his skates in 1997 and team captain Ron Francis left a year later, the Penguins have really just been Jagr's team. His first-round blistering of the Devils in '99 probably saved hockey in Pittsburgh; Paul Allen was ready to buy the Penguins and move them to Portland, but the fans started turning out to see what Jags would do next. (The Pens lost in the second round to Toronto.) In the end, the most important thing Jagr did was give Lemieux the breathing room to step back into the picture and put together the money to buy the troubled team.

Lemieux and Jagr are not the closest of friends. Mario is too private, Jagr too much a creature of the Czech community that he's gathered around him in Pittsburgh. But the legends, who've combined to win every NHL scoring title since 1994, don't have to be intimate. Jagr studied Mario when he was still a teen in Kladno, molding himself in the French-Canadian's image. And he's studying Mario still, this time the way Lemieux has grown into a civic figure. In April, Jagr allowed himself a rare moment of public longing when he confessed that he would like to do what Mario did: bring the Stanley Cup to Pittsburgh.

But as he becomes more comfortably Western, the best player in the world worries that the team he's inherited has become too European. This season, the Penguins lineup features 10 Czechs, two Russians, a Lithuanian and Ivan Hlinka, a Czech hockey legend making his debut as an NHL head coach. "No one knows if it will work," Jagr says. "There has to be a-how do you say it? -- hierarchy. I'm not so positive you'll play such great hockey with so many Europeans. During the Communist years, you didn't respect hierarchy because there wasn't one. Everyone made the same money. It's hard to get out of your brain. Look at me. I always wanted to be the man, no matter what I did. But not everyone can be on top."

Herb Brooks, the Pens' ex-coach, figures that Jagr is going to have his hands full just keeping his skills, thanks to the pounding his body has been taking. Jags knows this. That's why he's getting out of the fast lane, or at the very least, fast cars. The silver Viper that sits in his Kladno garage sat idle for so long that its battery went dead. "I may not be as good as I've been physically," he says. "But I'm much, much better mentally."

Maybe, but his burden is that of the beautiful soloist. Lemieux had his Ron Francis, Jordan his Scottie. But Jagr has... himself. This causes problems when mere mortals try mimicking his moves, as was evident in the Flyers series. When Jagr came out at half strength, the Pens came up lame around him-getting outshot 249-175 in the series. "We have to play a simpler game," sighs Darius Kasparaitis, the 27-year-old Lithuanian defenseman. "We try to get too fancy. We need to play ugly hockey." If Jagr is going to become the complete legend, he'll have to find a way to lift the Pens when he's too exhausted or hurt to lift himself.

As evening turns to not-so-early morning in the casino, the time on Jags' watch reads 6:10. Everyone else's watch says 1:45. Since there's no place in the world where there's a 4 hour 25 minute time difference, this raises a natural question, albeit one that irritates Jags. "It's my time," he says, as if it's obvious that the greatest player in the world should have his own time zone. Then he rolls another chip along the felt, and waits for it to fall down.

This article appears in the October 16 issue of ESPN The Magazine.


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