It's really hard to believe this is it for Jaromir Jagr in the NHL.
He's one of the few standbys left in the league from the early '90s, and certainly one of the only stars from that era that's still productive. Even coming off a "down" year, with 25 goals and 71 points at age 36, Jagr still had a legitimate shot to become the NHL's second-leading scorer of all-time.
That's incredible in and of itself, but consider the other factors at play. Jagr's already the ninth-leading scorer in history, despite the fact he didn't play a game in the high-flying '80s, played through two labour stoppages and is now leaving the NHL three or four years before his time.
Jagr's seventh all-time in points per game (1.26), fifth in even strength goals, ninth in shots on goal and second best in career game winners (112).
And he's only 288 points behind Mark Messier, which would mean four 72-point seasons to slide in behind Gretzky in the career scoring race.
Even if he's checked out of the NHL for good (and I'm not entirely convinced he has), Jagr will go down as one of the greatest offensive players the league has ever seen, despite the fact many will look at him as someone with a mixed legacy.
Let's face it, there are large segments of the fanbases in Pittsburgh and Washington that will never forgive him for the way he left town, and that's understandable. What was always so infuriating about Jagr is how incredibly different and disengaged he was — even for the fans and media who knew him so well, no one really ever got that close in 18 years as one of the game's brightest lights.
I've always said it's a copout to write about European players as "enigmas," when really the failing of those who write about players from other countries is that they don't approach them for what they are instead of what they "should be." What Jagr was was an 18-year-old from Kladno, Czechoslovakia: shy and reserved, with broken English, a little bit cocky, and definitely a child of his homeland.
Jagr's always been fiercely patriotic, wearing No. 68 in honour of his grandfather, who died that year in prison after the Prague Spring Rebellion against the country's Soviet rulers. He has always talked about returning home to play his final days in Kladno, and that's still the plan.
I don't think any of us, however, saw those days coming so soon.
It's easy to say he's following the money by heading to Russia next season, but he had an $8-million offer to play in the NHL next season that would have kept him on essentially the same salary he's had every year postlockout. Ultimately, he said it was a matter of stability, that he wanted a three-year contract and a place to call home, even if that means going to an outpost like Omsk, which is far more a part of Siberia than continental Europe.
It's a strange exit, to be sure, but one of the things that I've been really struck by the past 24 hours is the outpouring of support from Rangers fans over the loss of their captain. Jagr may have went out somewhat of a villain in his two previous NHL stops, but in New York, he finally grew into the spotlight and became more hero than enigma.
He was more vocal, he was re-engergized — heck, he was even a leader of sorts, something no one would have predicted based on his early play. And yesterday, he had a bit of a teary exit from the Big Apple, with nothing but good things to say about the management and staff.
Now he's off to play hero to a new league in a city where he's already beloved. Jagr took a star turn in Omsk during the lockout, racking up 16 goals and 39 points in 32 Russian league games three years ago, and that played a role in the oil barons forking over as many millions as they did to bring him back.
"The NHL gave me an opportunity to play hockey," Jagr said yesterday. "And I played with so many great players. Especially in Pittsburgh with Mario and Ron Francis and Bryan Trottier and Paul Coffey — all those great players. I had a chance to learn hockey from them. I was very lucky."
For the longest time, Jagr existed in the league as an unknown entity, a spoiled brat, really, to many North American hockey fans, but he leaves an old friend.
So long, Jags.