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Brother Karsh's Column for LetsGoPens.com

A Day Late

June 11, 2001

This should have been written two years ago. At least. It certainly shouldn't have to be said now. Having to voice it at present, as it all assumedly comes to an end, just doesn't feel right. It makes it seem as if fans and critics, press and passers-by have only recently stumbled onto what they're going to miss—thus all the scurrying to make amends, or to prove a position never actually taken in the first place.

Yet, this renders the entire exhibition tacky, a caricature of both reality and of itself, and that's not how it should end.

Jaromir Jagr is the single greatest hockey player in the world today. Certainly, it's possible to make arguments to the contrary with names such as Forsberg, Sakic, Hasek, or even Mario Lemieux, but given Jagr's size, strength, age, and stat sheet, there should be no debate. Jagr plays on the largest stage, against the most talented competition, and he dominates. Period.

In numbers alone, Jagr already stands on equal footing with those long-since enshrined in the Hall of Fame. At age 29, Jagr has more scoring titles (five) than all but Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito, Wayne Gretzky, and Mario Lemieux. Taking into account his current pace and track record, it is conceivable that Jagr could end up holding perhaps nine scoring titles, and that's being conservative. Still, nine Art Ross Trophies would be as many as Jean Beliveau, Stan Makita, Guy Lafleur, and Marcel Dion have combined. Such numbers would rival only Wayne Gretzky in the annals of hockey history.

The laundry list Jagr brings to the table is extensive including four straight scoring titles, two consecutive league MVP awards, back to back Stanley Cup championships, and six missed playoff games in his career to date. Not to mention the seasons (note the plural) where he single-handedly shouldered the offensive responsibility of getting names like Chris Tamer, Dan Kesa, Maxim Galanov, and German Titov into the playoffs.

Too bad it's not enough.

It's not enough because if Jagr is a great player, he can't be a good person. Or his heart can't be in the right place. It can't be, he can't be. Pittsburgh already has that athlete, his name is Mario, and having another would mean this story has two heroes and no villain. That's not how it works nowadays. Call it the downside of the age.

Conditioned by a culture of immediacy, where depth and dimension are trumped by size and grandeur, a story with no instantly identifiable bad guy isn't as compelling. Society at present seems determined to neglect that there was once a pronounced difference between statement and spectacle.

There has to be a conflict somewhere in the story, a struggle for power, a plot, a conspiracy, something where someone isn't merely misguided, but evil to the core. Modern media has taken to telling its tales in black and white, asking precious little from itself while simultaneously insulting the collective intelligence of its audience. Perhaps it's the competition that comes from competing with streaming stock quotes and a running sports ticker, but what's on the field isn't enough any more. There always has to be more to tell.

So now the world gets to watch as Kordell Stewart struggles not solely with the position of professional football quarterback, but with suggestions about his 'intelligence' and the innuendo about his sexual preference. Thank God Ty Cobb played when he did. What a shame any black boxer had to predate Muhammad Ali.

Some athletes and their era are just mismatched, and perhaps Jagr is an example. A European born talent who dominates what is still seen as Canadian province. But whatever the reason for the ongoing fishing expeditions, the last few weeks have been the culmination of a season made more for The National Inquirer than for The Hockey News.

However, in what should be the final weeks of Jagr's tenure with the Penguins, there is still no proof that there is any villain in this yarn of economic woe. It may make good copy, especially when Mario fans the flames from the golf course, but the only relevant fact is that the Pittsburgh Penguins can no longer afford the best player in the world.

Is Jagr is a compulsive gambler? Did he lose millions in the market? Does he have six different children with six different women running around Pittsburgh? Did he ever really like Pittsburgh? Did Pittsburgh ever really like him?

None of those questions matter because they are all pure guess work, no different than wondering if Kip Miller could ever keep his stick on the ice for an entire NHL shift. Until someone actually comes forth with concrete proof, it's speculation and nothing more. Worse, it has nothing to do with all Jaromir Jagr has given the city of Pittsburgh and the Penguins.

Assume the worst, that Jagr is all these things and more, can it honestly be said that Jagr could have done more for the team? Is it realistic to think—this season's revised cast included—that any one of the teams under Jagr's captaincy could have gone on to win the Stanley Cup had Jagr performed better?

Even the ultimate transgression, Jagr requesting a trade, still must come with the caveat that Jagr's rationale included the notion that a trade would behoove not just his own game, but be a fiscally savvy move for the Penguins and the their future success. What should be the penalty for an employee who goes to his employer and suggests something mutually beneficial, thirty lashes? Fifty?

Unfortunately the answer to all this flitting about is as fluid as the argument itself. At least for those who choose to argue it, there will always be a reason never to have never liked Jagr from the outset, just as there will forever be foundation for others to selectively ignore the flaws that might exist in his character and his game. A villain is there to be had by all, his name will be the same, and that's what is most important. As the French well know, it matters not why the guillotine is filled, only that it cuts clean, and often.

Still, when the debate team is finally asked to leave the room, and when those who instigate for a living have mercifully found another injustice to right, what the world will be left with is this. Jaromir Jagr will almost certainly leave the Penguins within a few weeks of picking up his fourth straight Art Ross Trophy. This will stem from a 52 goal, 121 point season where the Penguins finished their season in the Eastern Conference Finals and hockey fans worldwide were lucky enough to see Jagr skate along side Mario Lemieux one more time.

Whether, at heart, Jagr is a saint or Satan's little helper, whether he possesses all or none of the personal frailties and flaws one will find in everyone else around the globe; when it all is said and done Pittsburgh will have enjoyed one of the most dominant athletes in the history of hockey for more than a decade. To the tune of five scoring titles, two league MVPs, and two Stanley Cups, Jaromir Jagr has given over ten years of hockey excellence to the city of Pittsburgh.

Good or bad, maybe that's really all that needs to be said.

Brother Karsh appears weekly during the season at LGP.com and believes that the league must realize revenue sharing is vital to the NHL's survival, otherwise talents like Jaromir Jagr will always be forced to eventually leave markets such as Pittsburgh.

Back to Karsh's Column List


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