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THN.com Blog: Jagr says return to Penguins not out of the question

Jaromir Jagr has a two-year deal with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental League that runs through the 2009-10 season. (Normunds Brics-JansonsMedia)

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Jaromir Jagr has a two-year deal with Avangard Omsk of the Kontinental League that runs through the 2009-10 season. (Normunds Brics-JansonsMedia)

Jaromir Jagr said he has no designs on returning to the NHL in the short term, but if he ever did return he would be happy to go back to the Pittsburgh Penguins to play for his former idol, Mario Lemieux.

“I was thinking about it and if Mario would call me and say, ‘I’d like you to play for our team,’ I would think about it a lot,” Jagr said in a telephone interview from Moscow where the Kontinental League will hold its inaugural All-Star Game outdoors at Red Square Saturday. “I would play for the minimum salary. I would play for $350,000 just for him because I owe him my hockey life. I want to pay him back because he has made me what I am…besides my parents.”

Jagr is playing for Avangard Omsk on a two-year deal that pays him $7 million per season and he said he is bound to the contract with Osmk until after the 2009-10 season, so any return to the NHL (or the Czech League) would have to wait until after his 38th birthday.

Speaking of Jagr’s contract, there have been reports circulating through North America that the KHL, which is heavily-subsidized by the partly state-owned company Gazprom, has fallen on extremely hard times because of the global economic crisis and a drop in oil prices and is on the verge of collapse. There are reports that players are taking a 40-percent pay cut across the board, something Jagr says is untrue.

However, Jagr plays for one of the richest teams in the league. He said nobody on his team has had to feel the pinch, but can’t speak for players on other teams. But he did make it clear that neither he nor anyone on his team has had to take a pay cut.

“This is like the Cold War,” Jagr said. “I lived with this stuff for the first 20 years of my life, with the Communists saying the U.S. is the worst country in the world. To be honest, I don’t know about other players, but I know our team has had no problems.”

But in many ways it has been a difficult year for Jagr, both on and off the ice. The Omsk team has been inconsistent and although it went into the all-star break on a four-game winning streak, it recently came off a seven-game losing streak. The team has also had to deal with the tragic death of 18-year-old star Alexei Cherepanov, who collapsed on the team’s bench during a game.

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“He kind of looked up to me and was always asking me about how to get ready for the NHL,” Jagr said. “He kind of reminded me of me when I was young because he would stay out on the ice for hours. He didn’t score for the first two games and he kept staying out after practice to work on things for a long time.”

Jagr said he doesn’t know what to expect from his first outdoor game as a professional player. The forecast calls for cloudy skies and a temperature of minus-11 degrees Celsius (or 12 degrees Fahrenheit) for Saturday.

“They want to see if it’s too cold and if it is, they’re going to move it to Florida,” Jagr joked. “They have a plane all ready to go.”

WHO’S THE NEW GUY?
When Jagr returns to his Omsk club after the all-star festivities, he'll to be greeted by a new bench boss.

A variety of reports suggest Wayne Fleming, who spent last season as an assistant with the Calgary Flames before being recruited by Jagr to coach, and Avangard have parted ways with a formal announcement to be made some time over the next few days.

Fleming reportedly did not return to his team’s bench after the second intermission of an eventual 2-1 OT home-ice victory over Vityaz Chekhov Thursday. 

Ken Campbell is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesday and Fridays and his column, Campbell's Cuts, appears Mondays.

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