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  • Wednesday, February 2, 2000

    No. 1 and loving it

    Jagr is The, uh, Man, but still a boy at heart

    By MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

    PITTSBURGH --  The best hockey player on the planet sat on a couch in the Pittsburgh Penguins dressing room, his eyes fixed on the stock market prices that were listed on the television in front of him.

    For at least 10 minutes, nothing could divert his attention from the numbers scrolling across the screen. That is, until one of his teammates called over to him.

    "Hey Yags, how about that Czech team winning the gold at the world junior championships?"

    The smile on Jaromir Jagr's face seemed to stretch from Pittsburgh to Czechoslovakia as he looked over at his inquisitor.

    "That's great," Jagr replied. "Pretty soon, all the Czech teams will rule the hockey world."

    Jagr was joking. But this much is certain.

    Jaromir Jagr already rules the hockey world.

    FANS HAVE SPOKEN

    Oh, we know that statement will spawn heated debate. Isn't Florida's Pavel Bure faster? Doesn't hulking Eric Lindros provide more of a physical presence? And what of Paul Kariya, arguably the most skilled Canadian-born player in the game right now?

    Each of those arguments is legitimate. Yet Jagr still is No. 1.

    Don't take our word for it. That's what the people believe. The fans have spoken, and their message is clear.

    In the history of the National Hockey League, no player has ever received more votes in fan all-star balloting than Jagr did this season. Jagr copped an all-star record 1,020,736 votes, well ahead of Detroit defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom(924,024).

    It does seem that Jagr has more than accepted the tag of being the sport's premiere player from Wayne Gretzky, who retired last season.

    Jagr unofficially assumed that role when his Penguins met Gretzky's New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden last April 18 in what was The Great One's final NHL game. Jagr gave the Penguins a 2-1 victory by beating Rangers goalie Mike Richter in overtime.

    "It's only appropriate that the winning goal was scored by the best young player in the game," Gretzky said afterward. "People talk about passing the torch. Well, he caught it."

    But can he take it and run with it? So far, the evidence indicates yes.

    YOUTHFUL EXUBERANCE

    The often outgoing Jaromir Jagr on display these days is a far cry from the homesick kid who struggled with the English language when he first broke in with the Penguins in 1990. He is accommodating to interview requests. He wears an ever-present grin on his face. Instead of avoiding the limelight, he is doing his best to deal with it.

    "The spotlight is on me more than ever," Jagr said. "It doesn't bother me. I think I can handle it."

    Admittedly it can be difficult at times to contain one's emotions, especially when one still maintains the youthful exuberance for the game one enjoyed as a boy.

    "I love the part of me that is still a kid because it's so much fun," he said. "But you can't be a kid all the time. People expect more from me now that I'm "I am trying to improve off the ice."

    Jagr showed the hockey establishment he was serious when he showed up at training camp this season with his trademark locks cut short. Fans and teammates alike were shocked that Jagr would shear the long flowing hair that had been his trademark for so many seasons.

    "I was in Italy, and I told them to make me look like an Italian," Jagr explained to Pittsburgh reporters that day. "They have short hair like this ... I'm old enough to have short hair now."

    His teammates couldn't believe it. Rob Brown called him pretty. Ian Moran thought the new 'do made him look taller. Alexei Kovalev felt Jagr looked younger.

    In any event, Jagr said the rock-star look is history. Besides, his new hair cut helps him against opposing defencemen.

    "They don't know where I am, and they can't hold my hair anymore," Jagr said. "Before they were just holding my hair ...

    "Ah, just kidding."

    Jagr does a lot of kidding these days. He always has. Behind the closed doors of the Pittsburgh locker room, he always has supplied comic relief for his teammates.

    He once put on a wig and pretended to be a girlfriend of one of the Penguin players. Last summer he took that act one step further when he actually wore a woman's dress and makeup during a fashion show in his native Czechoslovakia.

    In his early days with the Penguins, he put a toilet seat on his head and called himself Joe Mullen, his Pittsburgh teammate at the time. On another occasion he wore a boxing helmet, towel and boxing gloves, and acted like Mike Tyson.

    When former teammate Petr Nedved sported some new facial hair one day, Jagr put black hockey tape on his own face to represent a goatee and sideburns. When he appeared on the ice during practice to take a faceoff, his teammates howled with laughter.

    A year ago, Jagr's trademark celebration of a goal was the Mile High Salute, the gesture that Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis made famous. This season he has scrapped that schtick in favour of blowing a kiss whenever he scores.

    In this day of high-priced agents and contract disputes, Jaromir Jagr is a throwback, a professional athlete who seems to be enjoying himself far too much.

    "Whatever I say, 90% of the time, I'm just joking," Jagr said.

    Maybe. But opponents find Jagr's antics on the ice anything but funny.

    Bure is like a speedskater, zipping up and down the wing. Lindros throws his weight around like he is competing in roller derby on blades. Jagr is the artist, combining his unequalled stickhandling skills with his ability to weave through opponents with the agility and grace of a figure skater.

    The numbers don't lie. Consider the fact that only three men have won the NHL scoring title outright since the 1979-80 season -- Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

    Early on in his career, it was discovered that when you rearranged the letters in the name Jaromir Jagr, you came up with Mario Jr. Perhaps it was a harbinger of things to come for No. 68, who would follow in the footsteps of Super Mario to superstardom.

    With Lemieux taking over as owner of the Penguins this season, he and Jagr are as close as ever.

    "He loves (the game)," Lemieux said. "That's what I noticed when he came into the league. He'd go on the ice an hour before the rest of the guys, and come off an hour after them.

    "You couldn't get him off, even the day of the game. He's really somebody who enjoys the game and has dedicated himself to it."

    One thing that has dampened Jagr's 1999-2000 season thus far is the injury bug.

    A recent stomach muscle injury threatened his participation as a member of the World Team for this weekend's 50th NHL all-star game at the Air Canada Centre. But Jagr returned to the Penguins lineup last Thursday against Atlanta and immediately scored -- an optimistic sign for fans who would dearly miss Jagr were he unable to attend the all-star festivities.

    Jagr underwent acupuncture treatments in an attempt to come back from that injury. He did the same thing three months ago when he was hampered by a muscle ailment in his right thigh. Whatever it takes to get back onto the ice, he seems willing to try it.

    That's one of the many traits that has made Jaromir Jagr the best player on the planet.



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