Last week Jaromir Jagr confirmed he would be leaving the NHL to join Avangard Omsk of the Continental Hockey League, now 36 and with his heart set on an eventually return to his native Czech Republic and HC Kladno, the news all but certainly signals the end of Jagr’s oft brilliant, oft controversial NHL career after 17 years.
For anybody who grew up in the hockey world of the early 90’s Jagr was one of those young starlets who developed into a league and world megastar, coming to identify the sport and the NHL in much the same way as fellow Penguin alumni Sidney Crosby does today. With Jagr on his way to Russia, Selanne possibly on the way to Finland or retirement, Kariya and Tkachuk spent forces in St. Louis and Eric Lindros long retired by injury, few of the youngsters who became NHL institutions in the offensive golden age of the 1990’s remain in the modern game. Jagr’s leaving signals nothing if not the end of an era for a large portion of today’s fans.
Drafted 5th overall in 1990, Jagr’s ascent into a powerhouse Pittsburgh Penguins within his first year of eligibility was an astounding feat, that he was also the first Czechoslovakian to play in the NHL without having to defect from behind the iron curtain made it all the more notable and allowed him a privilege many had never been given.
Often dwarfed by the shadow of Mario Lemieux in his early years, upon his mentors first retirement, Jagr went on to secure four consecutive Art Ross Trophy’s between 1997 and 2001, a feat only equaled by greats such as Howe, Esposito and Gretzky. Regarded as the leagues finest skater in the late 90’s, the young Czech developed in skill and confidence from the gangly European who tended to pass the puck into one of the games greatest right wingers, winning two cups in his freshman and sophomore seasons before achieving what he regarded as his finest accomplishment, guiding his beloved Czech Republic to Olympic gold in 1998.
Despite being marred by gambling problems and a tendency to fall out with taskmaster coaches Jagr’s career will forever leave a mark on the NHL.
To end the story there would pay some testimony to a great player and character, but his choice of destination following the NHL is both a perplexing one and a considerable reason for concern in the annals of the NHL.
Often quoting Ronald Reagan as one of his childhood heroes, Jagr boasted that he carried a picture of the former US president in his wallet, an act of immense insubordination in the former communist state of his birth. Now going out to pasture in a country still greatly blemished by the era of communism and too many commentator, still ruled by an old school elite, Jagr’s choice seems at odds with his childhood beliefs.
Naturally the move is fuelled by something else, something more fundamental to hockey itself. Jagr had said that if an NHL team was willing to put up a reasonable contract, he would have stayed in the NHL, yet whilst teams had offered a considerable amount more than Avangard Omsk, the restrictions of the Collective Bargaining agreement tied organizations to one year deals for a potentially injury prone veteran. Jagr was not willing to be wrung through the Free Agency mill again. In the meanwhile Omsk were happy to put up a three year deal for the services of a player still vaunted by North American fans, after all Jagr was not only going to be a superstar for Omsk, but the face of a rival European league.
The Continental Hockey League or KHL is due to commence its inaugural season in September 2008. Having swallowed up the Russian Super League, the KHL has also taken the cream of the crop from the rest of Eurasia including top teams from Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan. Funded largely by the new Russian business class of oligarch’s whom came to prominence after the collapse of communism and the subsequent market liberalization, and backed by Russian hockey great Igor Larionov, the KHL is the closest thing to a European super league and with the touted expansion from twenty four to thirty teams in 2009-10, many expect the league to encompass more countries in the next few years. Indeed invitations for expansion have been proffered to Swedish superpowers Frolunda HC and Farjestads BK with teams from the Ukraine expected to bolster the league roster alongside the recent Finnish champions Karpat.
All this makes for a potentially threatening outlook for the NHL, which draws a considerable deal of its fan base from Europeans blighted by a lack of glitz and glamour associated with the world’s major league in their own backyard. Furthermore for a league gearing its rules to a more European game, the lack of traditionally lopsided trade agreements for much of Europe and non existent pacts with Russia has left the NHL open to the potential loss of its European player base who could be easily tempted to the deep pocketed KHL. All of this had been so much smoke in the breeze, a pipedream of primary backer and deputy chief executive of Gazprom, Alex Medvedev who envisioned a great new league born out of Russia. Having only previously tempted minor leaguers, juniors and lesser NHL veterans like Jamie Heward and David Nemirovsky, the signing of Jaromir Jagr, an NHL legend, will provide a real boon for the fledgling KHL.
Avangard Omsk Oblast, to give Jagr’s new home its complete title, is entering into its 58th year of existence with renewed hope. With only one European Championship and one Russian Championship to its name since it’s formation in 1950, the team has undergone a considerable overhaul in recent years thanks to the financing of Omsk Oblast tax payers and it’s part funding by Russia’s fifth largest oil provider Sibneft, now known as Gazprom Neft after it’s merger with Gazprom. Another sparkling example of Russian newfound and selective wealth in an open and oft corrupt market, Avangard Omsk are on of the forerunners for the KHL’s first title to be decided in April 2009 boasting a roster which includes two North American goaltenders in the shape of Fred Brathwaite and John Grahame.
With the recent disquiet that surrounded Nikita Filatov, a top 3 lock to many that ended up being taken on a “gamble” 6th by Columbus in the 2008 Entry Draft, many an NHL analyst will have one eye on the development of the KHL which is benefited by a wealth, interest, population and geographical distance that the World Hockey Association could never muster. Whilst the glamour and too an extent the money still lies in the NHL, the trade boundaries and potential loss of crowd pulling talent could open the door to the KHL if it can broaden it’s European remit into other hockey hotbed countries.
For Jagr, a chance to become a poster boy for a new age in hockey will perhaps allow him to relive the glory days nigh on a decade ago. With the troubles that North America often burdened him now in his past, Jagr can now leave hockey on a new high, in a new place and admired by the worlds second most hockey mad nation. Already given the “A” for the upcoming season, Jagr can build upon the legacy he created as opposed to vanishing into obscurity.