Welcome to NHL99, The Athletic’s countdown of the best 100 players in modern NHL history. We’re ranking 100 players but calling it 99 because we all know who’s No. 1 — it’s the 99 spots behind No. 99 we have to figure out. Every Monday through Saturday until February we’ll unveil new members of the list.
The Penguins had just been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs by the Flyers in 2012 in one of the most surreal, violent, unforgettable series in Stanley Cup playoff history.
Things became even more fascinating outside of the Flyers’ locker room 30 minutes after the series ended. Mario Lemieux, the Penguins’ majority owner at the time, walked past then-Flyers owner Ed Snider, shook his hand, and then waited patiently. Finally, Jaromir Jagr emerged. Jagr had come close to signing with Lemieux’s Penguins nine months earlier, and when he chose Pittsburgh’s most bitter rival instead, some temporary animosity developed between the franchise icons.
No. 68 and No. 66 talked for about 10 minutes. Lemieux was regal as always but, in an uncharacteristic twist, did most of the talking. Jagr did most of the listening and, late in the conversation, Jagr smiled that larger-than-life smile of his. Then, Lemieux and Jagr embraced, and all was well with them. And rightfully so.
Lemieux is often credited for being the Penguins’ franchise savior, and on many occasions, he was. But once upon a time, the Penguins were on the verge of death and there wasn’t a thing Lemieux could do to save them. The king of the franchise’s hands were tied. And so, the bad-boy prince of Penguins hockey put Lemieux, the Penguins and an entire city on his back.
“Jaromir was an incredible hockey player and a big personality,” said former Penguins general manager Craig Patrick, the man who drafted him in 1990. “But what many don’t understand about Jaromir was his drive to win. No one likes to lose. But Jaromir had a competitive streak that was different. Even when he was young, he’d be so pissed when we lost. He was different.”
A whole city would have been pissed if the Penguins lost Game 6 to the Devils 24 years ago. Because if they lost that game, the Penguins may have left Pittsburgh.
On May 2, 1999, Jagr saved the Penguins, saved hockey in Pittsburgh and cemented himself as one of the greatest players in history.
When Lemieux retired in 1997 at 31, the Penguins were still in good hands. They had Jagr. He was 25 and right in his prime. Jagr won the Art Ross Trophy in 1995 when Lemieux took a season off for health reasons. He then won four straight scoring titles from 1998 to 2001. He was clearly the greatest player in hockey during the late 1990s.
“He doesn’t get the due he deserves,” said Tom McMillan, the team’s former vice president of communications and a former Penguins beat writer. “Mario and Jagr won 11 of 13 scoring titles during that time. The only two they didn’t win? Mario, not Gretzky, would have won those two if he were healthy. Mario and Jagr were like nothing we had ever seen.”
Early ’90s Jagr was a teenager with jaw-dropping talent and a penchant for scoring dramatic goals. Late ’90s Jagr was one of the greatest players in history.
“I had the pleasure of playing with Jags when he was a kid,” said Mark Recchi, Jagr’s teammate on the 1991 Penguins. “He was special then. You could see it. He had this unique ability to take over shifts. But by the late 1990s, he was the greatest player in the league and he was taking over games at that point. When the game was on the line, he would take the puck, stick that big ass of his into you, and you weren’t getting it away from him. He was incredible.”
So, the Penguins had prime Jagr. But they had a problem, and it was a pretty big one. They didn’t have any money.
The former owner of the Penguins, Howard Baldwin, was a well-liked figure among his players because of his preference for cutting them big checks. When the Penguins won back-to-back championships in 1991 and 1992, Baldwin knew his team was special. It wasn’t just great, but it was box-office gold. Big names were everywhere. Lemieux. Jagr. Ron Francis. Paul Coffey. Larry Murphy. Recchi. Kevin Stevens. Rick Tocchet. Joey Mullen. Bryan Trottier. They were rock stars. Thus, Baldwin did everything he could to keep the Penguins together.
Baldwin, though, didn’t have the funds. Mellon Arena was getting old. It wasn’t a profitable building, and Pittsburgh isn’t New York. Keeping that team together became a task. There was no salary cap then, and big-market teams were salivating for the Penguins’ stars.
By 1999, Baldwin was long out as Penguins owner. In fact, by then, they were owned by bankruptcy court.
They were still popular in Pittsburgh, but it was difficult to decipher if Pittsburgh was a good hockey town, or a Lemieux town. They were still a box office attraction in the late ’90s, but the Lemieux buzz was gone. The fan base was used to not only a winner, but an entertaining winner. A lack of stable ownership, no plans for a new building and a reduction of the season ticket base following Lemieux’s departure appeared to spell doom.
Though the players didn’t speak about it often, they were aware that the Penguins were in grave danger of leaving Pittsburgh.
“You didn’t have the perspective of what was going to happen at the time,” McMillan said. “Later, Jagr talked about it and talked about how they all knew at the time that they were playing for the franchise’s survival. That it was on the mind of the players meant a lot to the city, in retrospect.”
It was on one player’s mind more than the others.
Jagr knew. He always knew.
“One of the smartest human beings you’ll ever meet in your life,” Penguins broadcasting legend Mike Lange said. “Jags is a genius, especially with math and numbers.”
It didn’t take a genius to figure out the Penguins were in trouble. But Jagr’s understanding was very clear. And interestingly enough, his numbers were part of the problem. Jagr was the greatest player in hockey and he was paid like it. For the 1999-00 season, Jagr was to be paid $10.4 million. He was the highest-paid player in NHL history at that time.
The Penguins were doomed financially. When a team is owned by a bankruptcy court, luxuries that are considered commonplace no longer apply.
“We couldn’t even order players skates,” Jagr said. “We had to use our own cash. It was pretty tough.”
Jagr never spoke publicly about the Penguins’ financial issues during that time. It was something he kept inside. Years later, however, it became clear that it was always on his mind. And that it pushed him to keep the Penguins relevant.
“We all felt the pressure,” Jagr said. “It wasn’t about getting the Cup. We loved Pittsburgh so much.”
Great players carry considerable burdens. It’s part of the job description.
But this was something altogether different. Everything came to a head in the spring of 1999, when the Penguins barely slipped into the Stanley Cup playoffs and weren’t expected to stay long. They were the No. 8 seed and were forced to play Martin Brodeur and the mighty Devils in the opening round.
While the Devils were the Stanley Cup favorites, the Penguins were essentially a one-man team and limped into the postseason on a 6-12-7 skid in their final 25 regular-season games.
Then, the one-man team lost its man when Jagr injured his often balky groin in Game 1. Somewhat miraculously, the Penguins won games 2 and 3 without him.
But the Devils took command with victories in games 4 and 5, taking a 3-2 series lead. So injured was Jagr’s groin that he didn’t even try to skate on his own between games 2 and 6. It was widely expected that he would miss the remainder of the series.
There was no morning skate on the day of Game 6 because it was played on a Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh. But the Mellon Arena crowd erupted when No. 68 took the ice for pregame warmups.
“I was struck by how much he did realize that that game was so huge in terms of saving the team,” said Paul Steigerwald, whose groundbreaking interview with Jagr in 2017 shed light into his drive to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh. “Jags was so aware of how meaningful it was. He grasped the weight of that game, the importance of it. That game extended the relevance of the team in such a way that it gave credence to the idea of the Penguins trying to maintain a level of credibility in respect to the bankruptcy.”
The revenue generated by home playoff games is significant. Even in 1999, every home game was good for approximately $2 million of revenue for franchises. The Penguins didn’t have money and were eager to show bankruptcy court that they mattered, that they could be relevant, financially and emotionally for the city.
Jagr, medically speaking, had no right attempting to play that afternoon. The magnitude of the moment, however, pushed him onward.
“It was the biggest game I played in during my hockey career,” said Jagr, winner of two Stanley Cup championships and the 1998 Olympic gold medal. “I never played in one bigger. To play a game you have to win, or the whole franchise moves? That’s a pretty big game.”
Jagr, skating on one leg most of the afternoon with Scott Stevens draped over him, played an outrageous 29:35 in Game 6.
The scene was unlike any other in franchise history. Jagr taking the ice sent the Igloo into a frenzy. Lemieux, who was in the process of attempting to purchase the team, was aligning fellow investors at the time. Normally one to sit in the background, Lemieux chose to be front and center that day, and a man of the people. He didn’t sit in a private box. On that afternoon, Lemieux sat in the crowd with his son Austin, then 3, sitting on his lap.
It was only fitting that Lemieux, the king of saving the franchise and of playing through excruciating pain, was sitting with the people of Pittsburgh to witness Jagr emulating his hero.
“You must understand that Jags was always watching Mario when he was young,” Lange said. “He wanted to be just like him.”
On this day, he was.
The Penguins trailed Brodeur and the Devils, 2-1, late in the third period. Then, with 2:12 remaining in regulation time, a loose puck sat beside Brodeur. Jagr barged his way to the net and tied the game, setting off an eruption.
Halfway through overtime, the nervousness in the Igloo turned into bedlam. Marty Straka freed himself down the left wing and spotted an open Jagr swooping into the right circle. Jagr buried his one-timer past Brodeur in the single most important goal in franchise history.
Two nights later, Jagr played 21:19 and set up two goals in New Jersey, leading the Penguins to a stunning 4-2 victory. The Penguins ultimately lost to the Maple Leafs in the second round but they were able to generate approximately $6 million more in revenue because of those three home games. Along the way, the story of Jagr playing through pain to carry the Penguins helped the city fall in love with its hockey team again, something that had started to dissipate in the two years following Lemieux’s retirement.
“If they lose right away, maybe people don’t care as much about saving the franchise,” Steigerwald said. “I really believe that. But it was enough to keep the fire burning in terms of getting traction to create the proper environment for Mario to save the team.”
Jagr knew the Penguins weren’t legitimate Stanley Cup contenders at this time. But he also knew something had to be done to keep the Penguins relevant and in the black financially.
“Everybody had left by then,” Jagr said of the early ’90s Penguins heyday. “Kevin Stevens, Rick Tocchet, Ronny Francis. I don’t think we were good enough to win it all.”
So, staying became the priority, for more than Jagr’s health.
Pittsburgh radio host Mark Madden recalls vividly a conversation he had with Jagr in the moments following the Game 6 overtime goal.
Madden asked if Jagr was OK while sitting at his locker. Jagr then pulled his shorts up to reveal an “ugly bruise” on his upper leg.
“Jags said, ‘Of course I’m not OK,’” Madden said. “He said, ‘Look at my leg.’”
McMillan, to this day, marvels that Jagr embraced the pressure of that moment as he did.
“You weren’t really sure what the end game was in the organization,” McMillan said. “Stuff really bubbled up in the summer. No one knew what the impact was. That was part of it too. But in retrospect, that’s what he said. That’s what he felt. I heard those quotes when Steigy talked with him and said, ‘Wow. I didn’t know that he or they thought that way. I knew it was a discussion among the fans and the media.’”
Jagr played nearly everywhere in the second half of his career. He played for the Capitals, Rangers, Flyers, Stars, Bruins, Devils, Panthers and Flames. In fact, he now owns a team — the Kladno Knights — and occasionally plays for them, the emulation of Lemieux still taking place.
But the Jagr who was one of the five greatest players in NHL history played for the Pittsburgh Penguins. When he was young, Jagr was a force unlike any other, ahead of his time in terms of training, allowing him to wear down the opposition and own third periods.
Just as a young Jagr watched Lemieux every day in practice, the youngest member of the pantheon of Penguins icons was always watching. As a boy in Cole Harbor, N.S., Sidney Crosby used to consume video of the young Jagr. It makes sense. Stylistically, they had much common ground, namely their bodybuilder legs.
“He was incredible,” Crosby said. “I played against him for years, too, and I always appreciated how great he was, how strong he was. But yeah, I used to watch tapes of when he was young. Oh, my God.”
The Penguins knew they had something special from the very beginning. Jagr idolized Lemieux ever since watching him play in the 1985 world championships in Prague. Many great players were on the ice during that tournament, but Jagr noticed only Lemieux and decided then he wanted to play in Pittsburgh. Patrick, unlike many of his peers at the time, wasn’t afraid to draft European players.
“Easy choice,” Patrick said.
And the Penguins knew immediately they had something in Jagr. No one else’s story is quite like his, either.
The mythology of Jagr, over time, has grown perhaps even bigger than the man himself. And is just as mysterious. He’s the guy who refuses to give up the game despite moving into ownership, and whose legendary workout regiment allows him to keep going while his contemporaries have been done for decades. He’s happy one day, sad the next. He’s a genius who we never really understood. He saved the Penguins, then turned his back on them a decade later to play for, of all teams, the Flyers. He speaks openly about how religious he is and, once upon a time, received red-carpet treatment at every Vegas casino. He would get booed in Pittsburgh in his later years, but laugh about it afterward. Then, when he didn’t think anyone was looking, he’d look sad about it because those boos had to hurt. There wouldn’t be Penguins without him, after all.
Pittsburgh remains in his heart. The Penguins have asked Jagr twice this season if he’d like his number retired at a home game in February or April of 2023. His response? “That would be great. But not until I’m done playing.”
Jagr also told the Penguins this: He wants to have his number retired and can’t wait to come to Pittsburgh for a special night. It’s going to happen, perhaps as early as next fall. However, he also said that he would like for the Penguins to play a game in Prague soon, so that he could drop the puck before a game involving the team he loves in his home country.
He didn’t play through all of that pain to never see his Penguins again.
“Everything about him is special,” McMillan said. “We were blessed to have him. And if you think he doesn’t love Pittsburgh, you don’t know him at all.”
(Top photo: Steve Babineau / Getty Images)