Two referees skated over to Jaromir Jagr before the start of overtime last Saturday night and demanded a closer look at his stick. The officials did so at the request of Jagr's former teammates with the Washington Capitals, some of whom had a hunch it might be illegal.
The request was perceived by at least a few of the Rangers as a minor league move aimed at showing up Jagr, who has wielded his stick so much more effectively in New York than during his disappointing time in Washington. The stick was, in fact, found to be illegal, resulting in a Capitals power play and a more determined Jagr.
Just when everyone thought both sides had moved on, there they were: Jagr and the Capitals, nearly two years after parting ways, at odds again.
"We knew we could do that at any time," Capitals captain Jeff Halpern said. "But especially some of the things he said on his end inspired us to call something like that. . . . That stuff doesn't go unnoticed."
Tomorrow night, Jagr makes his second visit to MCI Center this season, and fourth since the January 2004 trade that sent him to New York for Anson Carter. But this trip is different. The 33-year-old, a large portion of whose league-high $8.36 million salary is still being paid by the Capitals, is once again the game's most dominant offensive player, a title he has held for the majority of his career, with the glaring exception of his 21/2 seasons on the corner of F and Seventh streets Northwest, where he failed to top 79 points after routinely surpassing 100 in Pittsburgh.
Jagr is among the NHL's leading scorers with 21 goals and 19 assists. He is seen as a savior of the big-market Rangers, who are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 1997, and perhaps the entire NHL, which desperately needs a superstar playing for its flagship franchise after a labor dispute wiped out last season.
"I don't want to come back to that again," Jagr said in the Rangers' locker room after Saturday's game. "I want to forget my time in Washington. It was a good experience. But I am happy I'm here."
Asked what he prefers about New York, Jagr appeared annoyed with the line of questioning and said, "I don't know. I don't know. I just like it here," before walking away.
In the Hockey News last month, Jagr said about his time as a Capital: "You don't have the same freedom; you couldn't play the way you wanted, the way I was used to. They didn't let you play the way you wanted; of course, you're not going to play the same. I was so used to something and I didn't get it, and I was trying to fight for it, and then I gave up."
Jagr's tumultuous tenure in Washington wasn't limited to the ice. It was marked by a public breakup with his longtime girlfriend, reports of significant gambling losses, scoring slumps, squabbles with the coaching staff, all while skating for an underachieving team of high-priced veterans.
None of those problems is affecting him now. Jagr has scored more than twice as many goals for the Rangers as he did during the same early span to start the 2003-04 season for the Capitals. "If I had 20 goals [during the first quarter of the 2003-04 season] in Washington, I wouldn't be in New York. And that would be very, very bad," he said.
Those who know Jagr cite three reasons for his recent resurgence:
* He enjoys the limelight, and there's no stage bigger than Broadway. In New York, he is a celebrity and is treated as such, the way he is in his native Czech Republic. That didn't happen in Washington, where he was largely anonymous.
* Rangers management has gone out of its way to create a comfort zone for Jagr. There are six Czechs on the team; his roommate in Manhattan is Petr Prucha; and he skates on a line with Martin Straka. Jagr and his countrymen often carpool to practice and the airport together, speaking exclusively in Czech.
* The league's new rules, particularly the referee's crackdown on obstruction penalties, have freed Jagr from the clutching and grabbing that went unchecked for so many seasons, obscuring his talent and creativity. The increase in power plays, too, has given him more opportunities to do what he does best.
"The rule changes have a lot to do with it," Rangers Coach Tom Renney said. "But I also think that surrounding players from his country, who sort of think the same way and identify with the instinct that's required without the redline, has helped him."
The coach paused, then added: "I also think he's a happy player. I think he's enjoying it here in New York. He's certainly playing inspired."
Words such as "inspired" were rarely, if ever, used to describe Jagr's play for the Capitals. At least one former teammate, defenseman Brendan Witt, remains disappointed, even a little bitter, that the Rangers' Jagr seems so different from the one who played in Washington.
"He's a great player, but I question the way he played here," Witt said. "We know the talent he had, but he didn't come to play every night. Why? I don't know. Maybe he wasn't happy. But he was getting paid $11 million. Isn't that enough to make you want to play hard? Ask any of the other players who were here, and I think they would agree with me."
Capitals fans haven't forgotten. Some still wear No. 68 jerseys to MCI Center, but Jagr is roundly booed each time he touches the puck when he plays there. And that won't be any different tomorrow.
"I think it's great," Witt said. "It's probably pretty frustrating for him when every time he touches the puck, he hears that."
But no amount of booing or gamesmanship, it seems, can wipe off Jagr's smile these days. He's scoring. The Rangers are winning. He's happy again.
"With him, being happy is a big part of his success," Halpern said. "New York has forced him to live closer to the city. In D.C., he chose to live farther out and there wasn't much for him to do. That affected him off the ice. He liked Pittsburgh because he was a big fish in a small pond. Even though New York has a lot going on, with the way he's playing, he's getting recognition.
"We would have loved to see him do what he's doing in New York when he was here. New York gave him a fresh start. Maybe we are better off this way, but for him, he's better off that way. So it worked out for everybody."