Exile

After 17 years in the NHL, Czech hockey star Jaromir Jagr hits the ice—and the jackpot—in Siberia.

By Jeffrey Tayler

Jagr, wearing number 68 to commemorate the Prague Spring, waits to play in Omsk.

The stomp-stomp-clap of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” thundered as Jaromir Jagr’s image on the video screen above the rink flicked off and the player himself left the bench. Hunched menacingly and clutching his stick, he skated onto the ice with his teammates through a glowing red-white-and-black mock-up of a hawk’s open beak, occasioning the first of many stadium-wide chants—“JAGR! JAGR! JAGR!”

Held in a new, 10,000-seat arena, the sold-out game, which was to be nationally televised, bore all the trappings (and then some) of an NHL contest, including a squad of solarium-bronzed cheerleaders and a pulley-operated hawk that swooped from its perch above center ice, claws splayed, to overfly the rink.

The national anthem that roused the crowd to its feet, however, began with Rossiya—svyashchennaya nasha derzhava (“Russia—our holy country”); and, save for a few Toyota and Nikon logos, all the names limned onto the ice belonged to Russian companies: Gazprom, Sogaz, Mostovik, Yasnaya Polyana. The Czech-born Jagr, 36, a right wing who has topped rosters for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals, and the New York Rangers since 1990, is now playing for Avangard Omsk, of the new Continental Hockey League, in Omsk, Siberia. This was his team’s first home game of the 2008–2009 season, against Metallurg, from the Ural Mountain town of Magnitogorsk.

Omsk, a Siberian regional capital of 1.1 million in bear-prowled taiga 1,600 miles east of Moscow, is probably the last place American hockey fans would expect to find Jagr, who remains close to the top of his game, despite his age. Until recently, Russians, who know the city as a czarist-era prison outpost and a center for heavy industry, would probably have found it odd as well, since for almost two decades they had watched their best hockey players flee to the NHL. But nowadays, Russians see nothing unusual in Jagr’s presence. Given their booming energy economy, they can afford such talent: on Avangard Omsk’s roster, Jagr is joined by two other Czechs and the journeyman American goalie John Grahame.

Russia is in a nationalistic mood these days, but hiring foreign players accords with the Zeitgeist. Before the game, sitting in the stands as the team warmed up, I talked with Konstantin Potapov, Avangard Omsk’s president.

“We created the Continental Hockey League to rival the NHL,” he said. “Why should the best Russians have to go to the NHL? We’re actively recruiting foreign players, the best of them.” This being Russia, even big sporting endeavors usually need the blessing of the authorities. No exception here: the Omsk municipal administration is a prominent sponsor of the team, and Potapov confirmed the pivotal role of the Omsk Oblast governor in bringing Jagr on board. The oligarch Roman Abramovich may have quietly helped finance the new stadium, Omsk Arena. All this bespeaks a patriotism that was often lacking in the 1990s, when big money fled Russia and the government seemed paralyzed.

Still, Jagr’s presence in former gulag country seems a bit surreal. He is, after all, a committed anticommunist who wears the number 68 in memory of the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring, in 1968, the same year his grandfather, who had been dispossessed and imprisoned by the Communists, died. This past summer, when the New York Rangers declined to renew his contract, Jagr could have found another NHL team—though perhaps not one willing to pay him $11 million, roughly his first-year salary with Omsk.

After the game (which Avangard Omsk won 6–0, with Jagr scoring one goal), I asked him about his decision over a dinner of steak and potatoes in the players’ dining room. He exuded a warm, boyish shyness, despite his fame, but he spoke without mincing words.

“I had hoped to sign with New York, and that didn’t happen. But I came to Omsk because I wanted to. Here in Russia, you have the real freedom, which is not like U.S. freedom. Back there you have so many rules.” He smiled.

“If the police stop you [in the U.S.] because you’re going too fast, they can put you in jail. But sometimes you just need to go fast. Here, you always have choices”—including, he seemed to imply, bribing one’s way out of trouble.

“Is that the only reason you came to Omsk?” I asked.

“No. This is Europe, and it’s closer to my culture than America.” His conversion to Russian Orthodoxy eight years ago factored into his decision, he told me, as did his stint playing with Avangard Omsk during the NHL lockout over salaries during the 2004–2005 season. “You know, as a kid I wanted to play for the NHL, and I never thought about Omsk. But life is crazy. The world just moves so quickly.”

“But your jersey number is 68. Didn’t you have any compunctions about signing on with the Russians?”

“Czech Communists, not Soviets, imprisoned [my grandfather]. And to say I won’t come to Russia would be like saying I wouldn’t go to Germany because they started World War II. You have to let it go.”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/12/exile/307141/