Jagr and Nedved still got it

40-something Czech legends thrill fans in Liberec

04.02.2018
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The two Czech legends in their mid-40s pose for a ceremonial face-off: Jaromir Jagr with Rytiri Kladno, the club he owns and now plays for, and Petr Nedved, who made a one-game comeback with HC Benatky nad Jizerou for the occasion of Jagr’s return. Photo: Bohumil Kucera / rytirikladno.cz

In a Czech second-division game that simultaneously marked the return Jaromir Jagr to his home country and Petr Nedved’s farewell game in his hometown, Jagr’s Rytiri Kladno defeated Nedved’s HC Benatky nad Jizerou 7-2. However, the final score doesn’t do justice to the night it was in Liberec.

Before the game, many thought that the two 40-somethings would be merely making cameo appearances, and that alone was enough to make it an event of national significance. However, the two Czech hockey legends left much more of an imprint on the game than that, with Jagr recording three assists, Nedved a goal and an assist, and both players – the two oldest in the game by more than a decade – had more ice time than any other forwards on their teams.

“I felt pretty good out there,” Jagr said after the game. “I was a bit worried it wouldn’t go so well, but it turned out fine.”

“I think it was a great evening, I really enjoyed it,” Nedved agreed. “I would like to thank my teammates and coaches for giving me this chance, the fans for creating such a great atmosphere around it, and of course Jagr.”

The Saturday night game was the culmination of a week’s worth of events that began with the news that Jagr had been placed on waivers by the Calgary Flames. Once he cleared waivers and was banished overseas on Monday, hockey fans and media in North America lamented “the end of a hall-of-fame career”, accompanied by the predictable reflective articles and comments.

The reaction in his native Czech Republic was slightly different, however. “Return of the king,” proclaimed the official website of the team Jagr owns and now plays for as well.

Ever since he left home at age 18 for greener pastures, his fans in Kladno and around the country have had to follow his career from afar as he won Stanley Cups and NHL scoring titles. That task became somewhat easier after the rise of cable television and the internet, but it didn’t make North American start times any easier to deal with.

There have been occasional homecomings over the years. He suited up for Kladno for stretches during the NHL lockouts of 2004/05 and 2012/13, selling out arenas wherever he went. Demand for tickets was so great during the second return that three of Kladno’s home games were moved from the team’s usual home rink to the much larger O2 Arena in Prague, some 35 km away, with all three games drawing in excess of 15,000 spectators.

Then there was the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, where Jagr thrilled fans at O2 Arena a few more times as a member of the Czech national team, most notably by scoring the winning goal in the quarter-final against Finland, and won the tournament MVP – a fitting end to his international career.

But now, it seems, he’s home for good.

“One of the reasons why I came back is so my parents can see me play live again. They haven’t been to America for ten years,” the 45-year-old Jagr said in a press conference on Thursday. “My mom is probably my biggest fan. She’s probably seen me play more games than all of you put together.”

A few things have changed since the last time he played in Kladno. Jagr bought controlling interest in HC Kladno in 2011, rebranded the team Rytiri, “the Knights” and gave them a new colour scheme (double blue and gold) and logo. But without their king leading them, the Knights were relegated in 2014 from the Extraliga to the WSM Liga – the second tier of Czech professional hockey. The team is currently third place in the league and hopes to return back to the top. To do that, the Knights will have to win two playoff series and then finish among the top two teams in a four-team tournament known as the “barrage” – consisting of the two semi-final winners from the WSM Liga and the bottom two teams from the Extraliga.

In order to be eligible to play in the barrage, a player must have played in at least 15 regular season and playoff games combined. With the regular season winding down, that meant that Jagr had to start playing in games right away if he wanted to make sure he would be eligible. Immediately, the remaining games on Kladno’s schedule sold out, home and away. First up was a Saturday night encounter in Benatky nad Jizerou, which presented some logistical problems.

You see, the WSM Liga consists of 14 teams that have vastly different operating budgets and revenue streams. The teams near the top such as Kladno, Ceske Budejovice, Karlovy Vary and Slavia Prague all have their eyes on advancing to the Extraliga and have played there before. In fact, Karlovy Vary and Slavia are only a decade removed from facing each other in back-to-back Extraliga finals. But look further down the standings and you see names like Trebic, Litomerice and Kadan – provincial towns with small community rinks and no realistic chances of advancing upward. Some of them even function as farm teams for Extraliga clubs.

Benatky (which also happens to be the Czech name for Venice, although some real imagination is needed to see a resemblance) is the smallest town in the league, with a population of just over 7,000. Its arena, if that is an appropriate thing to call it, has seating for 200, standing room for about 1,500 more, and no media facilities to speak of. When I contacted a writer of the club’s website to ask about the process of media accreditation, she answered: “Well, we’ve never had any accreditations.”

To rectify the situation, Benatky’s Extraliga parent club, Bili Tygri Liberec, offered to host the game at Home Credit Arena, which opened in 2005 and has seating for 7,500, making it much more capable of meeting the demand of such a spectacle.

It became even more of a spectacle when, seemingly out of the blue, it was announced that Nedved, a Liberec-native, would be coming out of retirement to play for Benatky nad Jizerou in the game. Nedved, who at 46 is three months older than Jagr, had last played competitive hockey in 2014, the year he was a teammate of Jagr’s at the Winter Olympics in Sochi. His connection to Jagr goes deeper than that. The two were both selected in the first round of the 1990 NHL Entry Draft – Nedved second overall by Vancouver and Jagr fifth by Pittsburgh. The two were also teammates in Pittsburgh for two seasons in the mid-90s and for a few weeks with the New York Rangers in 2004.

“The idea came from (Liberec) club president Petr Syrovatko,” said Nedved, who was already scheduled to have his jersey retired by Liberec on Sunday. “We talked and he said that if Jagr played for Kladno, he would probably be in the lineup against Benatky on Saturday. He asked me if I was interested in playing. I wouldn’t have come up with that idea myself, but it was fantastic – a Hollywood ending.”

Nedved was a little bit hesitant considering he hadn’t even skated since September, but admitted that “the adrenaline of such a big game is much stronger.”

However, Jagr warned that he wasn’t 100 per cent physically, as the knee problems that had plagued him in Calgary were still nagging him a bit. He would appear in as many games as possible to qualify for the barrage, but maybe only for a shift or two.

“I felt worse today than I expected,” he said after practice on Thursday. “I’ll play on Saturday in Liberec, and I’m sure fans will want to see me there, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to play the whole game. I just want to make that clear to the fans.”

As expected, the two were in the starting lineup on Saturday, with Nedved at centre for Benatky and Jagr lining up on Kladno’s right wing. Once the puck dropped, the two did not skate straight to the bench and call it a night, as some feared, but skated full shifts, and took regular turns on their teams’ top lines. Then in the 14th minute, Jagr fed a pass to 19-year-old linemate Adam Kubik, who opened the scoring on a beautiful forehand deke. Kubik, who finished the game with two goals and two assists, hadn’t been born yet when Jagr won an Olympic gold medal in Nagano. Two minutes later, Jagr assisted on another goal and got another standing ovation from the sold-out crowd.

But in the second period, Nedved responded. First, he got his team on the board by firing a beautiful wrister from the right wing that went top corner, then minutes later assisted on the tying goal. He got two standing ovations of his own, and after 40 minutes the score was 2-2 and both headliners had two points each. The building was abuzz.

It was still 2-2 halfway through the third period when Jagr got his third point of the game, assisting on the eventual winning goal. With his team down 4-2, Nedved tried to get things going by starting a dangerous rush but he was tripped. On the ensuing power play, a turnover led to a shorthanded breakaway and the 5-2 Kladno goal, and before the game was over, Kladno had racked up a 7-2 win.

However, the five-goal outburst in the third period did nothing to dampen the spirits of everyone in attendance. After the final horn, Jagr and Nedved embraced, both got yet another standing ovation, and Jagr tossed his jersey into the crowd before skating off the ice for the final time.

“I wanted to play the whole game if I could,” Nedved said after leading all players in the game with an amazing 23:56 of ice time. “We’d agreed before that if it didn’t go well I would pull myself out, but I think it went well.”

“He’s amazing,” Jagr said of his opposite number. “That he could play like that after four years of not playing makes the rest of us look bad. It seemed to me he was one of the fastest guys out there.”

Jagr’s 20:21 on the ice was much more than expected as well, and he explained: “I didn’t really know how the knee would hold up, but I played with the brace. It was pretty good. I had almost no pain. The other day I was on the ice for the first time in a month, but somehow it happened.”

So what follows this game for the two? For Nedved, even though he looked to be in fine form and fully capable of playing regularly, it was a one-time thing. The following night, in the very same arena, Liberec’s Extraliga club raised to the rafters the number 93 that he wore for the six seasons he was the team’s captain from 2008 to 2014.

“I look forward to tomorrow. It will be a slightly different evening, a little sadder, but I hope we all enjoy it,” Nedved concluded, fighting back tears.

But for Jagr, it was just the first game in his drive to bring Kladno back to the Extraliga. The next stop will be Wednesday night in Prerov, a town of 45,000 in the eastern part of the Czech Republic, where another sellout is waiting, and then next Saturday, the King makes his much-anticipated home debut in Kladno.

“We have to start playing like we’re in the playoffs already,” Jagr said, looking ahead. “I've said it in the dressing room, we can’t just be thinking it's the regular season and we’ll turn it on when the playoffs start and think we’ll win. That's not how it works. These last six games, we have to play as if it's the playoffs.”

DEREK O’BRIEN

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