MANNHEIM Ė They began their careers under wildly different circumstances, and now two decades later, near the end of their time, they meet again in Germany. Jaromir Jagr has been an heroic figure in Czech hockey just as Sergei Fedorov has been in Russian hockey. Yet, amazingly, their paths have crossed only seven times in international competition in all those years.
They are the warriors and the legends, and the only two players at the 2010 World Championships who also played in 1990.
Drafted in 1989 by Detroit, Fedorov defected from the Soviet Union the next year at the age of 20 to pursue his dream of playing in the NHL. Jagr was drafted in 1990 by Pittsburgh as an 18-year-old, the first Czech to play in the NHL without having to defect.
Fedorov wore number 91 in honour of his idol, Detroit captain Steve Yzerman (#19). Jagr wore number 68 to recall the Soviet invasion of Prague in the summer of 1968. Both players went on to have NHL careers which will put them in the Hockey Hall of Fame and IIHF Hall of Fame three years after they retire.
They met for the first time in international play just months before both soon-to-be superstars joined the NHL, at the 1990 World Championship in Switzerland. The Soviets were at the height of their power and won both games they played against Czechoslovakia, 4-1 in the Preliminary Round and 5-0 in the Medal Round. CCCP went on to win gold, and the Czechs took home the bronze.
The next time Jagr faced off against Fedorov, a year later, was the last time they would meet under the old political regime.
This time it was the Czechoslovaks who beat the Soviets, 5-2, in Saskatoon, at the 1991 Canada Cup. Jagr was held pointless, and Fedorov got the mostly meaningless second Soviet goal in the final minute. Neither team qualified for the playoffs, the Soviets finishing fifth and the Czechs sixth and last.
The 1990s was eventful for both players. Jagr, thanks largely to Mario Lemieux, won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992, while Fedorov, on a slowly emerging Detroit team, won the Cup in 1997 and í98. Jagr was the goalscorer who won the Art Ross Trophy five times, while Fedorov was the consummate two-way player who could score and check, winning the Selke Trophy twice.
Although both players appeared for their respective teams at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, the Czechs and Russians never met. But 1998 was a different story. Think Nagano. In the preliminary round, it was the Russians who prevailed, 2-1, but in the gold-medal game, the result was reversed as the Czechs won their first ever gold with a 1-0 win.
Jagr and Fedorov did not square off again until the next Olympics, in Salt Lake City in 2002. That year, the Russians prevailed again, 1-0. And then there was the last time they faced each other, a memorable game at the Vancouver Olympics. Russia won the game, 4-2, but it was the check administered by Alexander Ovechkin on Jagr, cutting through centre ice with the puck, head down, that everyone remembers from that game. The check represented the changing of the guard, the passing of the torch, as the aging Jagr was smoked by the young Russian. Fedorov had an assist in the game but was not a factor in the outcome.
And so here we are in Germany. Fedorov is 40 and the second-oldest player (behind Denmark defenceman Jesper Duus) in the tournament. He and the Russians have five wins and two losses against Jagrís Czechs dating back to 1990. In head-to-head meetings, Russia has won a gold, silver, and bronze with Fedorov while the Czechs have won a gold and bronze against Fedorov.
This year, the teams arenít likely to meet until the Quarterfinals at the earliest. But the two names, Fedorov and Jagr, are synonymous with hockey in their country, even as they are now at the end of great careers. Mention must be made of their accomplishments, and honour must be given their victories.