by John Toperzer
When I originally penned the following article nearly two years ago, Jaromir Jagr was skating for the Philadelphia Flyers. He would go on to to help spoil the Penguins’ 2011-12 playoff hopes. Since then, rather than calling it quits at age 40, Jagr has played for Dallas, Boston and this season, New Jersey. He leads the Devils with 13 goals and 33 points in 38 games. Last week, he moved into a tie with Mark Messier for the seventh-most goals (694) and set the all-time NHL record with 122 game-winning goals. I first met Jagr 23 years ago today. Here’s the story I wrote Dec. 28, 2011.
It’s been 21 years and four days since I first met Jaromir Jagr. On Christmas Eve in 1990, Jaromir and his mom and dad stopped by my hockey card stand at Century III Mall in West Mifflin, PA, not far from Jagr’s West Homestead residence.
Jaromir was Christmas shopping in the U.S. for the first time and I was reaping the benefits. Although the mall was nearly empty just hours before its close, Jagr drew a crowd around my stand. Apparently, he had never before seen his face on a hockey card, or so it seemed from his giggling reaction. He looked at his Upper Deck rookie and his Score rookie while mom and dad smiled without speaking.
Jaromir signed autographs for the 10 or 15 folks that stopped by and purchased rookie cards while we spoke – or at least communicated in some fashion. I can still remember thinking how Jagr got his dad’s big body and his mother’s face. Dad held a brand new leather jacket that I can only imagine was Wilson Leather’s finest.
Fast forward past my season as the Penguins’ first website writer in 1996-97, fast forward past Jaromir helping the Pens stave off another bankruptcy in the late 90s, past his misquoted “dying alive” comments, past his trade to Washington for three scrubs (the Pens reportedly could’ve had Zdeno Chara for Jagr), past his gambling debts, past his re-emergence with the Rangers, past his move to the Russian League and past his spurning of Pittsburgh in favor of the Flyers.
Wednesday afternoon, Jagr decided to say hello to me once again. He didn’t come up and shake my hand, he wouldn’t even recognize me. No, Jaromir said hi to me in a way only Jagr can.
Wednesday morning I am catching up with Twitter after spending much of Tuesday in hospitals and doctor’s offices for two of the most dear people in my life. Sitting at my computer, I am still wearing my sweat pants pajamas when I read that the Flyers are practicing at Ice Castle in Castle Shannon, PA.
I had to get there immediately. The hockey rink’s 10 minutes from my house. I leapt up from my computer, traded in my Penguins hat for a neutral Pirates one, put my red coat on and took off for the rink. I even forgot my smart phone. I had no idea what time the practice was, but I couldn’t waste time by even calling ahead.
When I got to Ice Castle, there wasn’t much going on. I asked at the front desk what time the Flyers practiced and the attendant said “noon.” I sat at the table next to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s Hall of Fame writer, Dave Molinari. I knew I was at the right place.
Twelve o’clock came and went and still no Flyers. Shortly thereafter, they began to trickle in. The media were there, too. KDKA-TV cameras, HBO, everybody was there. At that point I realized I might get shut out because I don’t have a media pass. I explained to the rink worker I write for Hockey Buzz and Rotowire but he said I needed a credential to get in. So much for that.
I took some pictures from outside the rink while Philadelphia got its work in. I went to the second floor where Max Talbot fans held signs. I sat down at a table outside the glass with my dad (who I called from another person’s phone at the rink). Dad likes to take pictures, too, and he’s good at it.
Well, I walked back down to the first level several minutes later. The netting behind the second floor tables made it difficult to take good pictures. While watching the practice from behind the door through a glass window, I asked the attendant again if I could just take five minutes or so worth of pictures inside the rink before it ended. He was a nice guy and said “yes.”
So, I’m in. Bob Errey is three people to my left on the glass. Dan Potash is immediately to my left. This is the way it should be. I start talking to Flyers’ writer, Anthony SanFilippo. I even tell him about my Jaromir Jagr experiences at Century III Mall and he is nice enough to say “wow” and show interest in what happened more than 21 years ago. He seems like a genuinely nice guy.
Instead of taking photos in rapid fire while I’m in prime position behind the goal, I start to b.s. as much as I shoot pictures. I’m listening to the guys from HBO talk about them listening to Max Talbot, who is miked up. They’re saying how being a boom operator has got to be one of the most boring jobs. I’m telling Dave Molinari how I think he’s a great writer – kind of a no brainer since he’s already in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Right while I’m in my heyday, Jaromir Jagr fires a shot on a breakaway drill. His hot shot shatters the pane of glass less than two panes away from me. I’m kind of just stunned, like wow, did that just happen to me. Did Jagr just do that?
Immediately I thought of Jerome Lane. Lane broke the back board while playing for the Pitt Panthers basketball team in the late 80s. I guess the sheer noise of the broken glass made me think of something larger than life. I was the closest person to the glass when it broke.
Practice stopped. Players used sticks to clean up glass behind the goal. The attendant who let me in the rink brought out a big piece of wood to replace the shattered pane.
There was nothing more for me to do, nothing could top what just happened in front of me.
Jagr had made his mark once again.