Kladno, Czech Republic — Last week, raucous fans in the standing section of the CEZ Stadion unfurled a giant banner. It was unmistakably Rithiri, the bearded figure of his Kladno owner, with fans all over the arena serenading him and presenting him with his birthday cake after the game.
Sports team owners rarely enjoy such adoration, but this is Jaromir Jagr, also one of Kladno’s best players. He’s not just that history, in 2023 he’ll be 51 years old.
“Of course he’s not the player he used to be, but he’s still good,” said Vojtek Absolin, who directs the fan chorus.
Nonetheless, Jagr was once truly great, appearing in the NHL for 24 seasons with nine teams, winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, and winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s Most Valuable Player in the 1998-99 season. and scored 1,921 points. He’s second only to Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857.
Among the many achievements older athletes have achieved in recent years, including Tom Brady retiring at 45, Serena Williams retiring at 40, and LeBron James reaching an NBA career high at 38, Jaguar stands out not because he’s played 35 straight seasons in professional hockey. , but because he does so for a cause.
He celebrated his 51st birthday in February, handing out crisp passes, fending off opponents with his bulky back and the occasional cross-check, leading Kladno to an important late-season victory.
But with most of his teammates in their 20s, Jagr is much more than an aging athlete clinging stubbornly to a waning career. He’s a savior of sorts, a humble Kladno national treasure who bears the very existence of his struggling club, and his rugged man just like his father did before him. Extend this post-industrial town on your shoulders.
“Without this town and this club, I wouldn’t be a hockey player,” Jagger said last week, an hour after a tough overtime loss. This club and this city made my life and it’s my responsibility to give it back.”
Jagr’s play will help the team avoid relegation and bankruptcy threats from the Czech Republic’s top hockey league. He continues to have much-needed funding flowing from his sponsors, many of whom prefer to be associated with his name and likeness rather than the lowest clubs. For the most part, Jagr still plays because he loves it and can, and he loves to eat.
Jagr weighed around 240 pounds when he played in the NHL. Recently, he said he weighs between 265 and 270 pounds, but much like his retirement, dieting isn’t in his immediate future.
“First of all, it’s fun,” he said, eating ham sandwiches in the modest VIP lounge of the newly renovated Municipal Stadium in Kladno. “Second, if I quit, I’ll be fat and unhealthy, and I’ll have back, knee, and hip surgery. I’ll crash. I’ll see it in everyone else. I want to live a happy life, so I will work hard until I die because that is the only way.”
Hard work has long defined Jagr, since he was a kid on his family’s farm. His hockey workouts are legendary and now he strengthens them by practicing with his 25-pound stick, ankle weights and weighted vests. He shoots six-inch go-kart tires on ice. Increase resistance with stickhandling in the pool.
“He’s a different kind of animal,” said Landon Bowe, the Kladno goalkeeper from St. Albert, Alberta. “He’s a little crazy like that.”
During his two years in Kladno, he has seen Jagr’s influence firsthand.
“I don’t know if we’d have a team here without him,” Bowe said. doesn’t have the biggest budget, but he’s secured sponsors and a team, it’s his baby, and it’s amazing to see how much people love him.
Pittsburgh in the Czech Republic
With its quaint medieval town centre, modern residential quarters and rural farmlands, Kladno was once the industrial (and hockey) center of Europe. Known for its mines and the great Poldi Ironworks opened by Karl Wittgenstein (father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) in 1889, it is located less than 20 miles northwest of old Prague.
Under the post-war communist regime, a steel factory sponsored the club, Poldi Kladno enjoyed a small dynasty, and from 1975 to 1980 Milan Novi, perhaps the second best Czech hockey player in history. I won the next five national championships.
“This city has a lot of history,” says Jagr.
At that time, Kladno had a population of about 50,000 people, and about 20,000 people worked in Poldi. But when the communist regime fell in 1989, the factory, unprepared for the free market, collapsed. People looked for jobs elsewhere, especially at airports between Prague and his two cities. The factory buildings still stand, but only a few are in use and are used by a few small companies.
Jan Ulrych, 46, a data analyst in Kladno, occasionally takes his son to the game. He spoke of several occasions when he and his family found his Jagr in his city of 70,000 people. He pointed to a quiet, orderly street.
“I always thought it was an ugly industrial city where nothing happened,” he added. “But it turns out it’s not so bad. Jagr is back, so that might help a little too.”
Jagr grew up in an area called Hnidosy in Kladno, not far from an old steel mill, about 10 minutes drive north of the arena. Jagr drew a map to help reporters find his old home.
His grandfather owned a farm, most of which was confiscated by the hated, Soviet-backed Communist government that took over after World War II. Jagr’s grandfather died in 1968 after being imprisoned for refusing to hand over land willingly. That same year, Warsaw Pact tanks stormed the country and crushed the growing independence movement. As such, Jagr still wears his number 68.
Jagr’s father also grew up on a farm and worked almost every day until cancer forced him to stay home. He died in his November at the age of 82. Jagr explains that his father was the artist who painted him what he is today.
Miroslav Hlavacek is co-owner of a small road sign installation company, headquartered in a makeshift warehouse of supplies and equipment next to Jagr’s old house. A fan of Rytiri Kladno, he casually knew Jagr’s father, even greeting him when he passed by.
“I always drive tractors,” he said, using a translation app on his phone.
Jagr’s father also owned a successful construction company, but farming kept him going. Many said he devoted his precious time to tending cattle, but rather than working for a more profitable construction company, he was doing what he loved. Jagr is likewise trying to get away from running both the construction company he inherited from his father and his club playing the game hockey, his lifelong passion.
“Playing was like freedom for me and it was the same for my father,” he said. “The farm was free for him because he knew it. He didn’t have to think about it. , you don’t have to think about how to practice, I’ve been doing it over and over since I was 4. Because of this, I’m running away from other things.
Jagr was amazed that his parents had never taken a vacation and that spirit was imprinted on him. During his boyhood, he worked on the farm every day, collecting huge bales of grass mainly from the fields next to him to feed his cows.
“That’s why I was so strong,” he said. “It was like going to the gym for five hours every day. Summer was the hardest because we had to buy food for the winter.
Clearly, he found time to skate as well. His first two seasons were spent in Kladno when he was 16 and when he was 17. From there, he went straight to the Penguins, where he was fifth overall in the 1990 NHL Draft. Jagr stormed into the North American arena with his signature mallet, charming smile and engaging skill, helping the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup alongside Mario his Lemieux, and in the following season his Contributed to the second victory.
Back in Kladno, things weren’t so flashy. Without the help of the Poldi factory to raise salaries, the hockey club faced bankruptcy. The city implored Yaguru’s father to buy the team so that it would not move or disband. he did. But Kladno struggled to compete with the powerhouses of Prague and Brno over the next decade, and money was always a concern.
“He wanted to sell it, but that would mean it would move and the whole city would go crazy,” Jagr said. “So the mayor asked if I supported it. I couldn’t say no.”
This was in 2011. Jagr was about to finish his three-year stint in Omsk, his Russian avant-garde. Unable to get the contract he liked, he left the NHL. He had just six weeks to secure sponsorship and public funding for his father’s hockey club before flying to the U.S. to make his NHL comeback with the Philadelphia Flyers. but he did it. After his final NHL game with the Flames in Calgary on New Year’s Eve 2017, Jagger returned home and paid close attention to Kladno.
fight to stay in the league
Yagul, who has played every season for Kladno since 2018, chose a new logo of Rytiri, meaning knight, and a bearded nobleman with a cross on his helmet, to honor his Orthodox faith.
A college-friendly arena is hidden between a football stadium and a small forest. Some fans walked along the nearby tracks to the game, wearing scarves with Jaguar images and most wearing jerseys of his number 68 Jaguar team.
Delicious red crovasses sizzle on the grill next to the front door and are sold on plates with flecks of brown mustard and slices of rye bread.
The Knights got off to a strong start to the week, taking two wins to move out of the bottom of the 14-team Czech Extraliga. Against Mlada Boleslav, on Yagul’s birthday, the 4,000-seat arena wasn’t filled to capacity, but especially on his terrace standing behind him one of the goals, his home fans roared in unison during the match. I was singing and cheering.
According to Jagr, ticket sales only make up 15% of revenue, with the rest secured by sponsorships and local government support. But fans are crazy. Montreal Canadiens and Toronto He Maple He Leafs where he played 15 seasons Thomas Plecanek was one of them. His second oldest on the team, his 39-year-old Plecanek grew up here and played his first season as a professional for Kladno. He now sits in the middle of the first line, with Jagr on his right flank, wearing the captain’s ‘C’ on his shirt.
“This is just a letter,” Prekanek said after a recent practice. “He’s the owner. He’s the go-to person for this organization and this town.”
The Knights are bottom of the table, trailing by one point with two games remaining. If they finish bottom, they will either have to win a seven-game playoff against the second division champions or be relegated to a lower league where sponsorship is much harder to come by.
To meet this challenge, Jagr practices every day, even when his team isn’t. At the same time, he attends meetings, cashes and worries about his flow, and directs the development of his 400 young players under the club’s umbrella.
“I can see how worried he is,” said Zdenek Janda, a reporter for Denik Sport and Isport who has covered Jagr for 20 years. “Playing is his release and he’s still good at his 51. There were games this year where he was the best player on the ice. I think he can play until he’s 65. ”
In February, Jagr scored his fourth goal in 22 appearances. It was his 1,100th professional goal, including in international matches, two more than Gretzky in most professional goals.
Sponsors love the international attention they’ve brought to the occasion. But if Jagr stopped playing, would they disappear?
“Yeah, most of them,” he said with a stern laugh.
There are no big businesses in Kladno, so jaguars are arguably the city’s biggest resource. Taxi driver David Spiller said Yagl is the most famous Czech Republic citizen in the world. Spiller, 51, called him “the savior of Kladno and the sport we love” and said that from 1989 until 2003 he was a writer, politician and president. presumed to be
“There are people in this country who say jaguars are gods,” Spiller said. “Of course Hubbell was very important. But it was short-lived. Jagr is still playing.”