Two of the greatest careers in international hockey ended this season. One of them, Teemu Selanne’s, went out in a blaze of glory with a goal in Finland’s bronze medal win in the Sochi Olympics. The other, Jaromir Jagr’s, ended with a loss and no points in the bronze medal game of the World Championship amid complaints about the refereeing in the tournament.
But When Jagr announced his retirement from international play after the Czech Republic’s 3-0 loss to Sweden Sunday, it marked the end of a career that spanned a quarter of a century and – with all due respect to Dominik Hasek, Jiri Bubla and Robert Reichel – was the best in that country’s history. Once again, Jagr answered the call for his country and like so many times before, he led the Czechs offensively.
It all began in 1989 when a 17-year-old Jagr starred for Czechoslovakia in the European Junior Championship and continued through two World Championship gold medals (2005 and ’10), an Olympic gold medal (1998) and bronze medals in the World Championship (1990), Olympics (2006) and World Junior Championship (1990). Along the way, Jagr played 123 games for his country, scoring 54 goals and 124 points.
Some stand out more than others. He led the Czechs in scoring in both the 2005 and 2010 World Championships, leading his country to the gold medal each time. But perhaps the most memorable was one of the first, when Jagr played in the WJC in Helsinki in 1990. The Czechs finished third in the tournament, but Jagr was one-third of one of the greatest lines in tournament history.
Playing on the right side along with Reichel and Bobby Holik, Jagr finished second in scoring in the tournament to Reichel with five goals and 18 points. And he did it a month before his 18th birthday in a tournament that had traditionally chewed up and spit out 18-year-old players. But the kid with the mullet and the dazzling array of skills served notice in Helsinki of the greatness that was to come.
It was an interesting time for Czechoslovak players. Just weeks before, the country had witnessed the Velvet Revolution, a which ended 41 years of communist rule in the country. Until then, teams were hesitant to take Czechoslovak players in the draft because they never knew when, or if, they would be able to get the players to North America. The year previous, Petr Nedved defected during a midget tournament in Calgary and Holik had been waiting to play in the NHL after being drafted 10th overall by the Hartford Whalers.
Jagr was great during the tournament, but scouts remained unconvinced. Bobby Clarke, who was then GM of the Philadelphia Flyers, declared Jagr to be the best prospect in the 1990 draft, but he was fired by the Flyers prior to that year’s proceedings. Now we are left to ponder how history would have changed if Clarke had still be Philadelphia’s GM, since they had the fourth pick overall and used it to take Mike Ricci, one slot before Jagr fell into the Pittsburgh Penguins lap.
Even we at THN weren’t sold. In our World Junior preview that year we referred to him as Jaroslav Jagr and had him rated fifth in our Draft Preview behind Owen Nolan, Nedved, Keith Primeau and Ricci. We also quoted one scout who said of Jagr: “He’s not that flashy. He doesn’t attract you with his finesse.” No word on how long a career that particular scout had.
Jagr developed into one of the smoothest big men the game has ever seen. And those who got to watch him over his 25-year-international career were privileged to do so.