KLADNO, Czech Republic – Every sports legend has got one. Whether it’s Wayne Gretzky, Michael Jordan, Johan Cruyff or Roger Federer, each of them holds a soft spot for their roots.
The same holds true for Jaromir Jagr. The Czech forward has reached eternal stardom in his country, and the bond between him and his hometown Kladno has always been deep.
For years it has been speculated that Jagr would come full circle and return to HC Kladno, the club where he began his hockey career. This speculation was fuelled in part by quotes from the player himself. In the past year, as Jagr’s future was up in the air, Kladno fans grew more and more excited by the possibility of their top export returning to his home arena.
Jagr has always been unpredictable to say the least, countless goaltenders can attest to that. After flirting with leaving the NHL for Russia, Jagr was one of the first big names to sign for a KHL team (Avangard Omsk) in 2008. After each season he was rumoured to go back to the NHL, but only after a stellar World Championship performance last May did he feel ready.
What followed were weeks of media speculation, with nearly every newspaper claiming to have the scoop where Jagr would sign. It was first proposed that Jagr would return to the Pittsburgh Penguins, others stated he’d surely sign with the Detroit Red Wings. Later on it seemed that the Montreal Canadiens had won the race for his signature, but Jagr wouldn’t be Jagr if he didn’t go against the grain and decide to wear the orange colours of the Philadelphia Flyers.
The news, however, did not mean Kladno faithfuls were left in the dark. With the team having struggled in the Extraliga in recent seasons, Jagr decided last month to acquire a majority stake in the club where he began his pro career. The news came at a time of rumours that the club might be forced to sell its license and relocate in order to keep its head above the water, after their main sponsor decided not to extend its contract.
“One week after the World Championships I learned that the team might be forced to relocate to another city and top hockey in Kladno would be a thing of the past,” said Jagr. “I then knew I had no other choice than to step in,”
Jagr now holds roughly 70% of the shares and the city of Kladno the other 30%. Apart from nostalgic feelings, Jagr also had a personal interest in saving his club, as his father has been the club’s president for several years.
Soon after the news was announced, Jagr’s impact could immediately be felt. National lottery company Sazka knocked on the door to sponsor the team and a lucrative contract was signed, meaning the team could operate in the 2011-12 Extraliga.
A season without top hockey in Kladno would have been hard to imagine. Despite being just a town of 70,000 people, mainly steel workers, the city has delivered more than its share of hockey talent. Apart from Jagr, the youth system also developed star players like Patrik Elias, Tomas Plekanec, Tomas Kaberle, Pavel Patera, Tomas Vokoun and Ondrej Pavelec.
But a glorious past doesn’t guarantee a bright future. As the Kladno star had faded Jagr decided the team needed a fresh start. Part of the new image was to come up with a new team name. Much like HC Plzen (Indians) did after Martin Straka’s successful return, Jagr and team management unveiled the team’s new logo and name. On September 18, the Knights of Kladno hit the ice in a 3-2 win over HC Sparta Prague.
One might wonder why this name was chosen, as knights usually come by horse and these animals are not considered perfect skaters.
Jagr explains: “A knight is honest, brave, never gives up and respects others and always plays fair. Ideally we would have asked the fans to come up with a new name but we really lacked time. I think that 'Knights' is just perfect and suits our team and style. Hopefully the people will enjoy our games and go home satisfied.”
The new owner now has to grow into a new role, one that demands countless responsibilities, all the while dealing with a rigorous 82-game NHL schedule and helping the Flyers get to the Stanley Cup. Jagr's former teammate and NHL Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux could serve as an example, having played for the Penguins while owning the team from 2000 to 2006.
However Jagr's situation is a bit different. How does one manage a team while playing and living in another continent with a different time zone?
“Each new job is difficult. I hope to watch as many games of the team live via internet, but for the daily business I’ve accompanied myself with highly capable people,” Jagr said.
“We divided the work and so far they’ve been doing a great job in Kladno. If not then I’ll have to come back, although that might not be a good option on second thought thinking of the nine hour flight,” he joked.
While Jagr is getting ready for the upcoming NHL season he has been actively involved this summer with on and off-ice activities around the club. “I’ve given the people some advice on tactics, systems and player development but the coaches have the final word. They should be able to transform the team to become one Czech’s top teams again.”
The only outstanding burning question is when the commander of the Knights will come home to strengthen his own troops. Jagr has vowed to make his return for years and once again confirmed it.
“I am positive I will return and can help the team capture a league title,” he said. “I think that in two years’ time I’ll be ready to play for Kladno if I can stay healthy.”
Until that moment the Knights will battle in their quest for Extraliga hockey survival. Bottom-dwellers in the standings a season ago, they sit in the middle of the pack with four wins and four losses.