With Lemieux out, long-haired Jagr becomes Penguins' mane man


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 man-made 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 National Hockey League.

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 tonight 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 MARIO JR."

"Lemieux is like a god to Jagr," said Jan Smid, a correspondent for Czechoslovak State Radio who interviewed Jagr at length last week. "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 the best coach in my life," Jagr said, pausing with emotion between words. "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. He served a 10-game suspension last winter, however, for bumping referee Ron Hoggarth, a collision that Jagr said was accidental. It was a moment that may indicate a storm cloud on the horizon.

Jagr and Lemieux both charged that day that Hoggarth was refusing to call penalties against Washington Capitals who were holding and hooking them. Jagr asserted that Hoggarth told him that he wouldn't call penalties when European players are the victims of the fouls.

Bryan Lewis, the NHL's director of officiating, said Thursday that he never heard of Jagr's complaint against Hoggarth.

The Hoggarth incident wasn't his only unhappy brush with authority. General manager Craig Patrick has talked seriously to Jagr about the speed at which he drives his black Camaro.

Police have given him tickets for two moving violations, Barnett said. "Thank goodness he consumes alcohol in moderation," Barnett added.

Apple-cheeked and baby-faced, Jagr's visage doesn't yet adorn advertisements, even in Pittsburgh. His teammates, however, notice other qualities.

"He can carry a couple guys and walk around the net and still have control of the puck," said Penguins defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. "He is so strong. His legs could be the strongest pair of legs I have ever seen on a hockey player. He's going to be one of the top three players in the league in the next couple years."

Paul Stanton, another defenseman, calls Jagr "a mini version of Mario."

"He definitely doesn't shy away from an uneasy situation when you need a goal," Stanton said. "He's not the guy sitting on the bench saying his skate is broken. He says 'OK, I want to be out there.'

"He likes the pressure. He's not like a kid. He is a kid. The guys get on him about his hair and the funny things that he says and he gives it right back.

"He's the kind of player people come to watch. Guys like him sell tickets."

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