Jagr's trade wish granted

Mario Lemieux. Roberto Clemente. Terry Bradshaw. Willie Stargell. Jack Lambert. For years, it seemed Jaromir Jagr would be next on the list of superstars who played their entire careers in Pittsburgh.

Wildly popular for his gifted scoring touch, childlike smile and mane of untamed black hair, the Czech-born Jagr thrived almost from the day he arrived in 1990 as an unpolished 18-year-old.

He won two Stanley Cups before he was 21 and never missed the playoffs in 11 Penguins seasons.

He especially enjoyed playing alongside Mario Lemieux -- "my idol since I was 6 years old," Jagr often said.

When Lemieux retired in 1997, Jagr became the city's biggest celebrity, even if he was seldom seen in social circles or in attire other than his No. 68 jersey.

Largely because of Jagr's enormous popularity, Penguins' attendance remained at near-capacity levels even while a cash-poor franchise was going through the convulsions of bankruptcy in 1999.

But something changed during Jagr's last season in black and gold and it was this transformation in personality and attitude that was just as responsible for his trade to the Washington Capitals as his budget-busting $10 million salary.

Somewhere, somehow, Jagr lost his joy for the game -- a love not only of scoring goals, but of playing hockey at a level few have achieved.

Lemieux's enormously successful comeback couldn't bring it back, even as the electrifying yet enigmatic Jagr piled up enough points to win a fourth consecutive NHL scoring title.

"I'm dying alive," Jagr said last season.

His Penguins teammates noticed the changes but, like the media and fans, could only guess at the reasons for it: financial losses, the pressure bestowed upon team captain Jagr to be a leader, his uneven relationship with former coach Kevin Constantine and current coach, Ivan Hlinka, the former Czech Olympic coach hired more a year ago seemingly to assuage Jagr.

"He wasn't very happy," Alexei Kovalev said. "He had a great season, but he wasn't happy what he was doing."

There even were words with Lemieux as the owner-star challenged him to play better during the Eastern Conference finals against the New Jersey Devils.

Apparently not motivated by the comments, Jagr didn't score a single goal in the series.

"He's a great player, he's making $10 million a year," Lemieux said. "This has to be the best time of his life and I'm not so sure he realizes that."

Untarnished by scandal, except for a few speeding tickets that ultimately led to his driver's license being temporarily suspended this spring, Jagr nevertheless dealt with rumours he lost big at casinos that sometimes dispatched private planes for him.

In recent years, he also began investing in stocks, making an unexpected fortune on a few dot-com companies before apparently losing most of it in an investment in a small tech company.

Jagr's losses were in the millions, though he said reports that he lost $20 million were grossly exaggerated.

Whatever the reasons for his discontent, they led Jagr to ask the Penguins three times to trade him, twice before Lemieux returned and again after the season ended.

Finally, general manager Craig Patrick granted his wish, dealing him Wednesday in a trade breathtaking for its boldness, if only because the Penguins seemed to get so little in return -- three prospects, none of them regarded as among the Capitals' top two minor leaguers.

"It's always hard to trade a good friend," Lemieux said. "We'll miss him."

For the Penguins, the biggest addition is the subtraction of Jagr's $20.7 million salary the next two seasons. Coupled with the $5 million they apparently will get from the Capitals, they have nearly $26 million of salary flexibility to re-sign free agents Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang and pick up another couple of players in trades.

Even without Jagr, the Penguins seem to have plenty of scoring -- Kovalev and Straka were among the NHL's top six scorers, Lang was in the top 20 and, for at least one more season, there is a guy named Lemieux.

For Jagr, the trade makes him a big fish in an even bigger pond with a chance to elevate hockey's visibility in a city where the sport often is an afterthought.

It's also a fresh start for a player who is only 29 and would seem to have years of further stardom ahead of him.

Even Patrick said, somewhat wistfully, "It's going to be sad he won't be performing for us."

"I want to be the best player in the world. I want to regain the throne," Jagr said recently. "I need only a couple of changes that will help me make it.

"One of them is the trade."

"I thought he already was the best player," Capitals general manager George McPhee said.

By Alan Robinson