Jaromir Jagr, the NHL’s highest-paid player, fondly remembers when he played for nothing. Back then, he was in the land he always has loved.
One of the world’s best hockey players, he still wears No. 68 in honor of the Czechs who died during the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. And in the Olympics, the pride shows in his eyes whenever he talks about his homeland.
“It is always the greatest when you play for your country,” said Jagr, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ All-Star right wing. “It is the biggest thrill.”
Even bigger than winning the NHL championship?
“The Stanley Cup is the Stanley Cup, and winning in 1991 and 1992 is still up there,” said Jagr, who signed a $48 million contract earlier this month. “But international (hockey), that is No. 1.”
It certainly has been this week for Jagr. He made a typically magical move to score a goal and help the Czech Republic defeat the United States 4-1 Wednesday.
That victory, which Jagr called one of the biggest in Czech history, propelled the team into the semifinal game against Canada that was played late last night.
“You have to play very smart with him,” Canada defenseman Scott Stevens said. “You can’t go for the big hit, you can’t try to crush him - because that’s what he wants. He feels your hit, he rolls and he takes it to the net. And on this big ice surface, he has more room.”
Jagr, the 1994-95 NHL scoring champion, is just one of four Penguins playing for the Czechs in the Olympics. Robert Lang, Jiri Slegr and Martin Straka also play for Pittsburgh.
Jagr, one of the most popular athletes ever to play in Pittsburgh, was aware he caused divided loyalties among Penguins fans. Most, of course, rooted for the United States. But most also wanted Jagr to star in a tournament featuring the world’s best players.
“I know a lot of people in Pittsburgh were cheering for us. I’m glad we won. Our country needed that,” said Jagr.