On the night of Jan. 23, 2004, when the Rangers were set to announce that they had traded Anson Carter to Washington for Jaromir Jagr, I got a call from my sports editor asking if I wanted to write about it.
I wasn’t the Rangers beat reporter at the time, but I had been around the team a bit and I was someone who supposedly knew hockey well (emphasis there on “supposedly”), so my editor said I should write an analysis piece breaking down the trade.
My take at the time: bad idea.
This had nothing to do with parting with Carter, a disappointment in his own right while in New York, but a number of other factors. I cited Jagr’s well-documented reputation as a locker room cancer. I talked about how it was just another example of the franchise’s misguided mercenary culture, when the solution seemed to always be another superstar lurking around the corner. Plus, I said, it takes more than one guy to turn a season around.
A few weeks later, while filling in on the beat for Andrew Gross, I was at least proven right about one thing: the 2003-04 Rangers were going nowhere. They had gotten blown out in Jagr’s debut with the team in Ottawa, and spent most of the next few weeks reinforcing the notion that it was time to dismantle the team and begin anew.
And yet in that time, it was also apparent that Jagr wasn’t the brooding diva he had been advertised to be. He was playing well and regularly trading barbs with his new teammates in the locker room. When I talked to him one-on-one, I found him to be engaging and affable, and admittedly thrilled to be in New York.
Fast forward four years, and Jagr might now be just three periods from the end of his tenure here. And should tonight be the end, Rangers fans should take a moment to embrace a player who has restored this franchise back to respectability.
Sure, plenty of other people have played a part in that — Henrik Lundqvist certainly being one, Tom Renney being another. And yes, a swift, second-round exit for the Rangers is hardly what was envisioned last summer. But think about all the other superstars who were brought to New York with championship aspirations — from Mark Messier a second time, to Eric Lindros, to Pavel Bure — and who fell woefully short.
Jagr, meanwhile, has played with purpose in New York, and presided over an era when saying you’re a Rangers fan hasn’t been met with ridicule, but even envy. He has scored big goals, persisted through criticism, and been the face of the franchise not only when things have gone well, but when they’ve gone awry, too.
I read somewhere that Jagr took heat on Canadian television for referencing the end of his career after Game 3. Typical selfish Jagr, the commentators probably said.
Maybe I’m biased, but I didn’t see it that way, nor did I see it when Jagr went to great length yesterday to talk about saving his best hockey for the playoffs. Instead what I saw was a player still trying to summon inspiration in a series that might by now be a foregone conclusion.
It’s funny how more often than not the pundits who criticize Jagr do so from a healthy distance, while the people who are around him on a regular basis quickly come to appreciate his rare brand of wit, emotion, and unspeakable talent. I’d love to tell you that’s because of some grand conspiracy. Instead, it’s because he’s hard not to like.
This is not to say everyone else has been wrong: By nearly all accounts, Jagr deserved the negative rap he got toward the end of his career in Pittsburgh and throughout his stay in Washington. And I’m sure he’s been a challenge at times in New York as well.
But he’s also been the player who has brought the Rangers back from irrelevance, and done so with a full heart.
I didn’t think that was possible four years ago. If this is Jagr’s last day as a Ranger, it seems like the right time for a retraction.