THEY CAME at him in waves Tuesday, tried to get Jaromir Jagr to feed a bonfire that already has burned for 2 weeks. They asked him about his unpopularity in Pittsburgh, asked him whether he thought their stars whined too much, even took a few stabs at a one-liner or two at his Russian goalie's expense.
But he's been at this rodeo before. The first time maybe when some of those asking him questions were still riding their hobby horses. So Jagr smiled and answered and deflected, and when he thought everyone had enough, he simply smiled once more and exited the Flyers' locker room.
"First of all, I don't think I'm Public Enemy No. 1 anymore," he said before leaving. "Lavy is right now. At least that's what I saw last game."
Then, with a nod to Flyers coach Peter Laviolette, he said, "Thank you."
He is 40 years old and fresh. That was as good as any story on this day, that this still-talented future Hall of Famer had paced himself appropriately this season, removed himself from games before a groin pull became a 6-week injury, before a sore rib became a depressing X-ray, before his hamstrings gave out.
He finished the regular season with 19 goals and 35 assists. He played, incredibly, in 73 games. Playing on the first line, he was one good reason Claude Giroux had the MVP-worthy season he had, one reason Scott Hartnell became the offensive force that people had projected he could be since he was a 19-year-old.
Hartnell has often credited working out with Jagr for added stamina this season, as a cause for his success. And the actual kids? The nearly dozen rookies who logged a total of 445 games for this revamped team on its uneven ride to the fifth seed in the conference? Laviolette again contended that they are no longer rookies, that the roles they were given and in which they succeeded made that status irrelevant. Sean Couturier, for example, will often find him assigned the task of stopping the NHL's leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin. The Flyers will need Matt Read to continue sniping.
Jagr might have something to do with this, too. Clearly, he wanted it that way. Clearly, it was part of what sold him on coming here.
"When I decided to come back, I wanted to have some sort of responsibility with the team and be able to play a lot," he was saying after practice. "I felt this is going to be my best choice. A brand-new team with a lot of new pieces and I'm gonna have a chance like everybody else. If I come to a team that just won the Stanley Cup or all the lines have been set for last 5 years, I might be playing third or fourth line. But I didn't come back to play third or fourth line. I'm not good there."
The Penguins won a Stanley Cup in 2009. Their rookies totaled 63 games this season. That is why Jagr pulled a last-second switcheroo during the summer, changing his mind at the last second, turning Pittsburgh's civic celebration into outrage instead, once again flipping a man who won two Cups in their uniform from hero to villain.
"In my opinion, I didn't do anything to hurt anybody," he said. "I don't think I did anything wrong. I listened to what they said and talked to them. I had no idea about the teams and I had no idea who was playing and what kind of players a team had. [My agent] was helping me and we thought the best option was Philadelphia."
It won't stop the boos in Pittsburgh, of course. Jagr shrugged and smiled. "It's nothing new to me," he said. "It happened right away in 2000 [actually 2001] when I got traded to Washington. It's already 12 years."
A long time. A lifetime. Over the last few years, he's had a teammate die in his arms and lost a lot of friends when a plane carrying a hockey team crashed in Russia.
He knows heartache.
This is hockey.
"I got no complaints," he said. "This organization was so good to me. And all the players and the fans. Hopefully we can continue for 2 or 3 more months on the same road. But so far, it was excellent."
Contact Sam Donnellon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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