The huge metal door to the main arena was closed, so I couldn’t see which team, if any, was on the ice. I had come to the arena to see if Russia’s goalie was on the ice, or whether he had really got injured the night before.
I was about to open the smaller door, the one that’s meant for people, not Zambonis, but just as I put my hand on the handle, it went down on its own. I pulled and the door flew open, but not all the way because the person on the other side was holding it. The first thing I saw was a dark blue jacket. As I looked up from the Czech logo on the jacket, I saw the man’s face. I recognized him.
His name is Jaromir Jagr.
On my list of people I would love to have an one-on-one interview with, Jaromir Jagr is probably number one. Considering how long he’s been on top of the hockey world – he played for Czechoslovakia in the 1991 Canada Cup, and won the Stanley Cup the same year – it’s amazing how he is still such a mystery man. I knew how to forge Wayne Gretzky’s autograph, I knew that Valeri Kharlamov was best buddies with Gennady Tsygankov, but I don’t know anything about Jaromir Jagr.
Well, I know something. I’ve heard some stories, like the one about his having a helicopter waiting for him in New York so he could zip down to Atlantic City to gamble. A few years ago, my brother-in-law interviewed Jagr for my hockey magazine, and wrote about his cold-hot-cold bath treatments. Back then, he stayed in a cold bath an hour before a game. And then in a hot one, then cold again. That interview ended in my brother-in-law sitting there silently next to Jagr, who had stopped listening, and was, instead, watching TV.
Every time I see him play, my eyes keep following him. Here I’ve noticed that he makes a cross across his chest before and after every game. My colleague tells me he’s now a member of the Russian Orthodox church. My photographer friend Matt, who’s shooting the World Championship here, tells me that Jagr draws a small cross on each of the sticks he uses in a game. They’re all numbered, too.
I’m not alone with my fascination with Jaromir Jagr, of course. During the Vancouver Olympics, one of the volunteers told me about her big day holding the microphone in front of Jaromir at the mixed zone.
“He’s got great teeth,” she told me, delirious of happiness.
For the first ten years of his career, he used to have that great mullet, that became his trademark. Back when he was a kid, and lived with his mother, and played street hockey with the other kids in Pittsburgh. Oh, sure, at 21, he wasn’t as much of a kid as the ones he played with, but he was still a kid.
There he was now, pushing the door that I was pulling, so I stepped aside awkwardly as Jaromir came through the door with skates and a stick in his hands. He was wearing that Czech jacket, sandals, and something my daughter would call tights as he walked towards the practice rink.
I forgot all about the Russian goalie, and followed Jagr to the other rink. He sat on the bench, put on his skates, while I stood in the corner, with my nose pressed against the plexiglass. A moment later, Jagr steps on the ice, and makes a few quick turns.
That’s a part of his routine. His game was still eight hours away, but Jagr was already getting ready for the game. Last year, in Germany, after Matt told me about Jagr’s habit of going out on the ice alone, in shorts, long before the warmups, I actually staged something of a stakeout. I stood behind the plexiglass for about an hour waiting for him, but somehow managed to miss him.
But now I was happy. Except that Jagr didn’t wear shorts. Not because it really mattered, but simply because it makes a better story. There he was now, though, Jaromir making his turns on the ice, looking all Jaromir Jagr.
A Slovak arena person was standing next to me. He looked at me, nodded, and smiled. I smiled back. His friend showed up, an older man, with a long gray hair, and his reading glasses on his forehead. He stopped and looked out to the ice.
“Jarda?” he asked the other man.
He nodded. And then we all three stood there silently, and watched Jarda.
Six hours later I was catching the last minutes of play in another game, a Finland game, behind the plexiglass in the corner where the Zambonis come to the ice from, when I noticed that somebody was standing next to me. Somebody big. Somebody big wearing a baseball hat. And shorts.
Jaromir – of course – looked out to the ice, and watched the penalty shootout. A few Finnish fans in the stands above me noticed him. “Jarrromirr,” they yelled. He kept on looking ahead, watching Mikael Granlund score on his penalty shot. Jaromir clapped his hands. “Jagggrrrrr,” somebody yelled. He looked up, and signaled with his index and middle finger that he was busy watching the shootout. Michael Wolf scored for Germany. Jaromir clapped his hands. Finland’s goalie, Petri Vehanen, stopped the next shooter, and then Mikko Koivu scored the game winner for Finland.
Jaromir turned around and started to walk away. Three steps later, he stopped, turned around, and looked up. The Finnish fans were hanging over the rails, and handed him a pen and a hat. Jaromir signed the hat, and a sweater, gave the pen back, and walked away. Not a word was said.
As I walked out to the interview zone, I saw that Jaromir Jagr kept on walking towards the practice rink again. I stood in the same spot as earlier that day, waiting, when I saw somebody run back towards the dressing rooms.
It was Joe. He’s Jaromir’s equipment manager, the one who sharpens his skates and makes sure his gear is in good shape. I’ve never met him, but because I know Matt, I know that Joe’s Canadian, and friends with Matt who’s Canadian, too.
Joe ran away, and Jaromir sat on the bench, putting on his skates. A minute later, Joe ran back, carrying a stick and two puck. He threw the pucks on the ice, and a moment later, Jaromir hit the ice.
And this time, he was wearing a baseball hat and shorts. He made those same turns, a few sharp ones, a few bigger ones, left and right, right and left, carrying a puck. He took a few shots, but mostly he just tested his skates. Ten minutes later, he brought the pucks back to the bench, and got out of the rink.
An hour later, having just eaten dinner, I took another route back to the arena. Instead of going straight to the mediacenter, I decided to cut through the dressing room corridor, like we’d done in the earlier games with Matt. That’s what he always does to get into the game mood. Only, this time I was alone, and I didn’t think.
I didn’t remember that the Czech dressing room was between where I was and where I wanted to go to. I did realize it quickly, though, because as I turned a corner, I saw a big number 68 right in front of me. The number 68 was in full hockey gear, minus skates and a helmet, and he was in a full hockey card pose, leaning on his stick. But he wasn’t posing. Behind the number 68, there was another big man, an older man in a T-shirt that couldn’t hide his belly and he was pushing Jaromir Jagr as hard as he could, playing the part of a defenceman as Jagr pushed back.
I couldn’t turn around, but I couldn’t walk past them, either. So I just stood there, and watched the man push Jaromir from the sides as well. Then Jaromir straightened his back, the older man stepped back, and I could quickly go around Jaromir and keep walking towards the rink.
I looked at the clock that was counting down to the opening faceoff in the ceiling: 11:14 remaining.
Eleven minutes later, I was up in the media tribune, watching him stand on the blueline, last player on the far side, with his head down. He made a cross across his chest, and then he was ready to play.