jaromir jagr: how I’ll tame you today, you plain of ice

Jaromir Jagr’s long lustrous NHL career ended yesterday with a waive. Offered up on Sunday by the Calgary Flames to any team that might want to take him on, the 45-year-old Czech winger went unclaimed, leaving the Flames free to loan him to HC Kladno of the Czech League — his hometown team and one he happens to co-own.

It’s not a proper farewell for a player so (as The Toronto Star’s Bruce Arthur wrote yesterday) preposterously talented, so outrageously coiffed, so effective for so long, so fun to watch. He deserves better. I’d read Arthur’s ode to him, if I were you. Then, if I (which is to say you) were still in a reading mood, I’d circle back to the Jagresque oral history that Kristina Rutherford, Ryan Dixon, and Gare Joyce put together for Sportsnet a couple of years ago — you would, I mean. You wouldn’t stop there, either: next up, necessarily, would be Rob Vollman’s statistical overview of Jagr’s career at NHL.com. Supplemented, maybe, by a look to ESPN’s review of some of the man’s amazing numbers? That’s on you.

I’m especially fond of some math that ESPN reporter Emily Kaplan reporter tosses into her appreciation of number 68. “Jagr,” she writes, “has reportedly been doing 1,000 squats per day since he was seven years old. That means he has done nearly 14 million squats.”

I can’t improve on that, but I can keep going with the reading recommendations. Browsing the Jagr bibliography, you’ll find Petr Cermak’s Člověk Jágr: Hokejova Bible (2003) and Jagr: An Autobiography (1997), the man’s own testament of himself, written with Jan Smid’s help.

Intrigued as I am by the title of the former — Jagr Man: The Hockey Bible is the translation I’m getting — I lack the Czech to get through it. The latter I’ve really only browsed. Again it’s a frivolous stat I’d like to draw your attention to: writing about fan mail in the pages of his memoir, Jagr mentions the 1,000 or so letters he was receiving a month, and how his mother did her best to answer them all. “Every letter I receive means a lot to me,” 21-years-go-Jagr writes, “even if I have to admit I don’t finish reading all of them. Sometimes a single letter will be about ten pages long, but I almost never get past the third page.”

This is a while ago, of course, and I’m assuming that the 1,000 is a number that can’t have remained consistent over the years, especially in these post-stamp times we live in. That doesn’t mean we can’t spin up some imaginary totals. If the mail did keep up, month after month, for all of Jagr’s 24 NHL seasons, he and his mother would be looking at a truly impressive career postal accumulation of some 288,000 notional letters.

Finally, can any haphazard miscellany of Jagriana really be counted complete without referencing everybody’s favourite hockey opera? I’m saying no, it can’t. It may be the only hockey opera, actually. As Czechs remember (and Canadians try not to), Canada didn’t win the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Japan, the Czechs did, beating Canada and Russia in succession. The operatic version, by composer Martin Smolka abetted by librettist Jaroslav Dusek, premiered in 2004 in Prague: it’s called Nagano. “At first glance there is a contradiction here,” Smolka has noted, “the aristocratic genre of opera” juxtaposed with hockey’s “profane spectacle with maximum appeal to the masses, with sweat, violence, yelling, and crudity.”

Does it work? It’s something to behold is what I’ll say here. Watch some of it, if you will. A couple of translated excerpts seem like they’re in order here, starting with operatic-Jaromir Jagr joining in duet with Ice Rink, sung by a women’s chorus:

JAGR:
What a chilly, chilly plain of ice.

ICE RINK (women’s chorus):
You’re mine, I’m yours. Mine, yours.

JAGR:
You can be treacherous, treacherous, oh plain of ice!

ICE RINK:
Jaromir is shivering and trembling.

JAGR:
How I’ll tame you today, you plain of ice!

ICE RINK:
You’ll writhe like a snake. What, are you afraid? Are you afraid you will have to give up the ghost?

JAGR:
In the NHL the rink is thirty meters at most. Chilly, treacherous.

ICE RINK:
Wrah-ee-ah-ee-ah-eethe

JAGR:
Treacherous plain.

ICE RINK:
My hero, my hero, my hero, mine, mine.

Later, as actual-Jagr did in 1998, opera-Jagr heads out at the end of the semi-final shootout to face a Canadian goaltender in the shoot-out. In life as in dramatic composition, he hit the post.

COACH:
Jagr!!!

JAGR:
I am Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-ne, ne-ne, never never fear.

JAGR:
I am Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-ne-ne, never…

JAGR:
I, I, I Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-, never, never, ne…

JAGR:
I am, I, I Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne- ne-, never, fea- fea- fea- fear.

JAGR:
I, I, I Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-, never, never, fea-fea-fear.

JAGR:
I am Jagr.

CANADIAN GOALKEEPER:
Ne-ne- never.

JAGR:
I am I!

 

 

firmament first team

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Reaction was swift to the news, when it came on June 10, that Gordie Howe had died. The tenor was sad, with an accent on tribute and fond respect. Hero was one of the words that was trending that Friday, along with legend and icon. Many of those who took to Twitter were quick to imagine Mr. Hockey’s ascension to a whole new celestial venue. “Heaven must have needed an elbow in the corner,” decided Sportsnet Magazine’s Gare Joyce; a certain Mark Scelfo fancied that “the first ever ‘Gordie Howe hat trick’ was recorded in heaven today.” (Howe’s friend, on-ice rival, and fellow Saskatchewaner Johnny Bower, 91, was more domestic in his thinking. “He’ll meet his wife up in heaven now,” he told The Hockey News.)

Both Sportsnet and Sports Illustrated elevated Howe to their covers last week. In the latter, Michael Farber went up on high for his lede to picture God on skates with Number 9 hunting him for a hit:

The Almighty blew it this time.

Sure, vengeance might be His (Romans 12:19), but as the Creator vets His newest recruit — a powerful, stooped-shouldered man with an easy smile and old-fashioned values forged in Depression-era Saskatchewan — He would be well-advised to skim the Book of Gordie. Verse 1: Do not mess with Gordie Howe. Howe, who died on Friday at age 88, had a memory as long as his unparalleled career, which touched five decades and included seven MVP awards in two leagues. Heaven might be a swell place, full of cherubim and gaping five-holes, but if Mr. Hockey suspects that he was taken from us too soon, that he could have gotten yet another day out of his rich life … well, the Supreme Being should start skating with his head up, you know?

Wednesday, at Howe’s funeral at Detroit’s Cathedral of the Most Blessed Sacrament, son Murray recounted that he’d once asked his father for advice on shaping his eulogy. “He said, ‘Say this: Finally, the end of the third period.’ Then he added, ‘I hope there’s a good hockey team in heaven.’ Dad, all I can say is, once you join the team, they won’t just be good, they will be great.”

Others who weighed in over the course of the week included Hall-of-Fame defenceman Larry Robinson and former Conservative cabinet minister Peter MacKay. A quick tour:

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this week: once wayne gretzky told me stats are for losers

Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft’s 2007 digital photograph "March Storm, Georgian Bay" from her series "Group of Seven Awkward Moments." "By pairing the tranquility of traditional landscape painting with black humour," Thorneycroft says, "the work conjures up topical and universally familiar landscapes fraught with anxiety and contradictions." For more of her sublime northern visions, visit dianathorneycroft.com.

Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft’s 2007 digital photograph “March Storm, Georgian Bay” from her series “Group of Seven Awkward Moments.” “By pairing the tranquility of traditional landscape painting with black humour,” Thorneycroft says, “the work conjures up topical and universally familiar landscapes fraught with anxiety and contradictions.” For more of her sublime northern visions, visit dianathorneycroft.com.

Crosby Not Eating Well

was a headline this week at philly.com.

From up on the International Space Station, the commander of Expedition 35 tweeted that he was enjoying Leafs games on TSN. “I watch them while working out,” wrote Chris Hadfield. “Great to see their skill and grit. Go Leafs!”

In The Detroit Free Press, Red Wings’ coach Mike Babcock discussed some changes in line combinations he’d made to try to help generate more offense. “We feel,” he said, “with Fil and Bruns and Clears, that’s a pretty good line. Fil’s been a good centerman for us. We like what the Mule is doing, so we’re just going to spread our lineup out and go a little bit deeper.”

Gare Joyce had a dream he couldn’t fathom: “I was interviewing Sidney #Crosby but he was only 4 ft tall + had helium suffused voice.”

Viktor Stalberg looked in the mirror this week and tried to count the stitches. A shot from Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf had hit the Chicago winger, Crosbylike, near the mouth, although Stalberg’s jaw didn’t break. “There are still a couple you can’t really see,” he said, regarding the stitches.

The doctor said it was 50 to 60, something like that — 20 on the inside and a little bit more on the outside.

It doesn’t look great, but it doesn’t feel too bad, to be honest with you. You cut so many nerves, my face is still numb, and you can’t really move it like you want to. I’m sure when the swelling goes down and those nerves heal up it will feel a lot better.

“What happened?” said Pittsburgh’s James Neal after Michael Del Zotto of the Rangers knocked him cold for a moment with what one paper described as “a reverse-forearm/elbow.”

Boston’s Brad Marchand said he was pretty nervous the first time he skated on a line with Jaromir Jagr in practice. He felt compelled to pass him the puck. “I felt like every time I got it I had to give it to him and let him play with it. Guys were yelling at me because we’d be on a 2-on-1 and the defenseman would just stand by him and I had a breakaway but I would still give it to him.”

Toronto listed winger Joffrey Lupul as day-to-day, this week, with an ailment of the upper body that wasn’t a concussion. “You are the one that likes that word,” the coach, Randy Carlyle, told a reporter, “so you put the diagnosis you want on that.”

Of the Nashville Predators, Chicago goalie Ray Emery said, “That’s a team you have to really play some boring hockey against.”

Szymon Szemberg from the IIHF had a word, this week, for Ottawa’s 40-year-old captain Daniel Alfredsson: indelible.

Of Milan Lucic, The Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont reporter said, “Needs to play angry. Otherwise, passenger.”

Sidney Crosby met with reporters in Pittsburgh to tell them about his sore jaw. “Felt it but didn’t see it,” he said of the slapshot that hit him. Still unable to chew solid food, he said he’d been living on milkshakes for nine days. Keeping weight on, he said, was “impossible.”

He laughed. “It hasn’t been too enjoyable.” Continue reading

spinners down below

It’s surprising that this wasn’t bigger news when it broke this week in Gare Joyce’s report in Sportsnet magazine about the painful demise of the Montreal Canadiens (“Dead Empire,” January 30). Apparently, when Joyce was in Chicoutimi in October, and stopped by at Cimetière Saint-François-Xavier to visit the grave of goaling great Georges Vézina, news of Scott Gomez and Pierre Gauthier and all the rest of those responsible for the Canadiens having fallen so heavily from the heights of grace and glory had already sunken in: Joyce was certain he heard the Cucumber slowly spinning down below.

Which raises a couple of questions. One: are things so very bad that all dead Canadiens are twirling or is it only a select few of the team’s greats? Also, two, is Vézina on a continuous spin cycle or does he only get going when (a) things seem particularly bad at the Bell Centre and/or (b) when the still-living stop by for a visit?

It’s not the first time for Vézina, apparently. A quick look back reveals that The Toronto Star was pretty certain he was rotating in 1991 when the Canadiens lost 6-4 to the Buffalo Sabres in the playoffs in, quote, another game of bad pond hockey.

Other famous hockey men not at peace in their resting places:

• Legendary Detroit manager Jack Adams was assumed to be awhirl in his casket at the White Chapel Memorial Park Cemetery in Troy, Michigan, when the 1977 Red Wings only took 11 shots on goal during a home game at the Olympia.

• Major Conn Smythe (said The Toronto Star’s Damien Cox in 2003) was apparently on a regular rotisserie at the Park Lawn Cemetery in Etobicoke, Ontario, on account of the pedigree of several recent Toronto Maple Leafs general managers, including Mike Smith (American-born) and John Ferguson, Jr. (American college boy).

• The absence of 50-goal scorers in the NHL in 2004 may not have been enough to spin Rocket Richard in his Montreal grave (Notre-Dame-des-Neiges), but (said Jim Kelley at espn.com) he was definitely up on one elbow.

• The performance of the U.S. Olympic team at the 2006 Winter Games was generally supposed to have had 1980 Miracle-on-Ice coach Herb Brooks spinning at the Roselawn Cemetery in Roseville, Minnesota.

• And finally, from Mordecai Richler, in Barney’s Version (1997):

The fumblebum Canadiens, no longer glorieux,
had disgraced themselves again, losing 5-1 to —
wait for it — The Mighty Ducks of California.
Toe Blake must be spinning in his grave.

Which is, of course, in Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.

worst coaches

Coach and Midget Canadien Hockey Player, by Aislin, a.k.a. Terry Mosher, 1993, from Montreal’s McCord Museum.

Georges Laraque says that Wayne Gretzky is the worst coach he ever played for. That’s the news this week from Georges Laraque: The Story of the NHL’s Unlikeliest Tough Guy (Viking Canada), that and a whole bunch of stuff about the prevalence of steroids and assorted other performance-enhancers in the NHL. That’s what first caught the headlines before giving way to Gretzky’s terrible coaching. Continue reading

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Topps / O-Pee-Chee1965-66 O-Pee-Chee #59 Bobby Hull

FIRST. Available soon from the world’s worst distillery? Bobby Hull’s voice is, quote, testosterone aged in oak kegs, according to Gare Joyce in The Devil and Bobby Hull (Wiley).

SECOND. Russian president Vladimir Putin has not given up on hockey. As recently as February, the former and future prime minister couldn’t skate. He vowed to learn, though, and by April he was ready to take a tottery turn at practice with a youth team at Moscow’s Luzhniki Sports Palace. Then, last month, a sign that his focus was maybe straying: when future former p.m. Dmitry Medvedev took up racquet and bird to promote badminton to the people — “Those who play badminton well, make decisions quickly,” he advised — his opponent over the net was the future former president. Not to worry. ESPN magazine reports that Putin is taking regular skating lessons under the tutelage of fellow politician and erstwhile defenceman Viacheslav Fetisov. He has sights set, apparently, on skating at the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Writer Brett Forrest put it to KHL president Alexander Medvedev: what kind of player will Putin be? “My personal feeling,” he said, “is that he will be a very disciplined player on the ice.”

THIRD. “It can be argued that the premium theorizing on most sports has fallen to the journeymen players — the Sheros and Nesterenkos of hockey, baseball’s Jim Bouton — and that the magnificently gifted — Rocket Richard in hockey, Pete Rose and Mickey Mantle in baseball — often appear to be in lifelong thinking slumps.”
• Roy MacGregor in a 1978 profile of Guy Lafleur, collected in his new compendium of hockey writings, Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost (Random House Canada).