Jagr, Voracek pay tribute to Havel

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Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek pay tribute to Vaclav Havel with "V" and "H" on their helmets . (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

DALLAS - They are just two letters, a "V" and "H," together on the back of his helmet. They sit inconspicuously across from the NHL shield that is stuck on every dome in the league.

The letters, worn by Flyers forwards Jaromir Jagr and Jakub Voracek, are the initials of Vaclav Havel, the former Czech Republic president who died Sunday. And they aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

Jagr, still his country's biggest pop-culture icon, is not just paying homage to the life of a courageous defender of freedom as his civic duty. He was a close friend of Havel.

"Our country is small, and hockey is pretty popular," Jagr said with deference. "Most of the time, people from government and sportsmen actually know each other a lot.

"I went to the White House three times - and all of them were with him. When he flew to the U.S. and went to the White House, I was with him then, too."

The jersey numbers of both Jagr and Voracek are a tribute to their homeland. Jagr's No. 68, his only number worn since 1990, is a tip of the cap to the year 1968, a fierce period of liberalization in his homeland - known as the "Prague Spring" - when citizens gained important rights from the crippling communist reign.

Voracek's No. 93, his number since 2008, pays homage to the year 1993, when Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Teammate Andrej Meszaros is from Slovakia.

Havel led the nonviolent Velvet Revolution in 1989 that helped earn Czechs the right to free speech, free press and travel across any border from communist Soviet reign. He was elected president of Czechoslovakia that same year and was the Czech Republic's first leader as a sovereign nation until 2003.

Havel, 75 at his passing, was awarded the Philadelphia Liberty Medal on July 4, 1994, and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003.

"That revolution, with him and the students in 1989, is what started it all," Jagr said. "Jake doesn't know that much, because he wasn't born yet. But [Havel] was a guy who fought all his life, for the truth and against the communists. It was a truly big day. He did it all, without a doubt."

Jagr said he knows his prolific, Hall of Fame career would not have been possible without Havel and the brave people who fought alongside him. Only 26 Czechoslovakia-born players made it to the NHL before 1989. Now, Jagr is among 146 Czechs to play at least 100 games in the league.

That is a staggering number for a country that has a population (about 10.5 million) similar to New York and Philadelphia combined.

"If you look at the big picture, he was the main guy," Jagr said. "Without him, I don't think anyone from the Czech [Republic] would play in the NHL. After the revolution started, the border was open, and you could go anywhere you want. Before, it was illegal."