When Jaromir Jagr first came up with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the early 1990s, it was impossible not to hear the story about how the young Czech came to wear #68 on his jersey to commemorate the year that the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and crushed the government of reform-minded leader Alexander Dubcek.
That is why he admired Reagan. Why he has an American flag in his bedroom and two decals of Old Glory on the windshield of his car in Kladno. And why the young Penguin star, the flamboyant and seemingly carefree spirit, handsome, athletic and rich, wears number 68, after the Prague Spring of 1968, the spring that his grandfather died.
It made a nice story. But now, more than 16 years removed from that interview with E.M. Swift in Sports Illustrated, the boy who has grown into a man is singing a different tune, and one that many Americans might find all too painful.
As all hockey fans know, Jagr found himself without an NHL contract for the first time in his career once the Rangers washed out of the playoffs in the second round against Pittsburgh last Spring. Unwanted, he headed to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), Siberia and Avangard Omsk, the team he played with during the NHL lockout of 2004-05. By all accounts, Jagr enjoyed his year in Russia and was happy to return.
The tragic death of teammate Alexei Cherepanov notwithstanding, it seems that Jagr is enjoying his second tour in Russia as much as the first, something he passed along to Andrew Meier of the New York Times in a larger piece about Russia's plans to rebuild its national hockey program via the vehicle of the KHL:
"Here, it's not like in the U.S.," Jagr says at a different point. "You got such freedom, it's hard to believe. In the U.S. you have so many rules, everything's regulated and structured. When you make a mistake you pay for it - a lot." It is a theme that Jagr returns to often, the freedom of this strange place. It is not so much that his departure from New York has left a disquieting wake, but that he has discovered the unlikely and unexpected promise of Siberia. "Look at A-Rod," he says. "No matter how well you do - they always want more. Expectations only climb higher. In Russia you don't have to worry if you make a mistake. And that's what I love about living here. There's always another way to make up for it. Nothing's too serious. Nothing is a problem, and at the same time, everything's a problem. But somehow no matter how bad things are, you can always work it out."
That's certainly an interesting commentary on America's culture of celebrity, isn't it?