With the news coming out yesterday that former Pittsburgh Penguins legend and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr had cleared waivers and is choosing to continue his career in Europe, dozens of people in the hockey world have come forward with tales of Jagr Lore. Former players and coaches have shared their fondest memories of the living legend, but perhaps no story is as poignant, certainly the the Penguins franchise, as the one that has emerged from NBC Sports’ Adam Gretz.
In his latest column for NBC’s Pro Hockey Talk publication, Gretz goes back in time to 1999 and uncovers the moment that Jagr literally saved the Penguins as a franchise.
Given the success that the Penguins have had the past ten years, it’s easy to forget just how perilously close the team was to relocation in the late 90s. Mario Lemieux had retired, Ron Francis had departed as a free-agent and the core of the team’s early Stanley Cup winning teams was largely gone. Besides Jagr, the team really only had Alex Kovalev, Robert Lang and Martin Straka as offensive weapons. Financially, the team was an absolute mess. Lemieux purchased the team out of bankruptcy and had a plan to get things back on track, but he wasn’t sure if he’d have the necessary capital to follow through on his plan. The only way to guarantee success and meet payroll was for the team to sell some playoff tickets.
If the plan failed there was serious talk of the team being relocated to Kansas City or dissolved entirely.
Remarkably, the Penguins qualified as the 8th seed for the playoffs that year. But that wasn’t enough, Lemieux and the Penguins needed at least two rounds of ticket revenue in order to stay afloat.
Facing elimination in Game 6 of the first round against the New Jersey Devils and playing essentially on just one leg, Jagr put up perhaps the single most dominating performance of his career, physically willing his team to victory. Jagr would score two goals that game, including the OT winner and he’d go on to eliminate the Devils in Game 7 just days later. Remarkable.
Given the circumstances and what was at stake, it’s not hyperbole to call this the most important game in not only Jagr’s career, but the most important game in Pittsburgh Penguins history.
“I remember that like it happened yesterday,” Jagr said. “I pulled my groin in the first game. We were losing 3-2 in the series and if we would lose the first round I think the team would move to Kansas City because they had no money. We had to make the second round to get the (money) for the payments.
Jagr continued: “I came back and I tied it with a minute-and-a-half to go and then I scored in overtime. That was probably my best game ever, I would say. My most important for sure. I’ll probably never score a goal that important.
“Probably if I hadn’t scored that goal the team wouldn’t be in Pittsburgh right now. (Sidney) Crosby would be in Kansas City.”
The Penguins would go on to lose to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2nd round, but Lemieux and his partners had just enough to keep the team in Pittsburgh. The rest, as they say, is history.
Thanks for everything, Jaromir. All the best in Europe and we’ll see you in the Hall of Fame!