Former NHL star Jaromir Jagr, right, signed a lucrative contract with Russia's Omsk team of the new Continental Hockey League in July. ((Alexander Wilf/Associated Press))

When the NHL announced in late January that the New York Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning would begin hockey's regular season in Prague, the league envisioned Czech star Jaromir Jagr as its major selling point.

The rationale was obvious. Jagr has been a national hero in his country since he played with the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the early 1990s.

The two games slated for this weekend, the first on Saturday (CBC, CBCSports.ca, noon, ET) and the second on Sunday, also take place 29 kilometres from Jagr's hometown of Kladno.

But after a disappointing 2007-08 season, when Jagr's scoring production dropped to 71 points for the Rangers, general manager Glen Sather let the free agent explore other options.

Though there was talk of retaining the 36-year-old Czech, Jagr signed a lucrative contract with Russia's Omsk team of the new Continental Hockey League in July.

Initial dismay

News of Jagr's signing was initially met with dismay by fans living in Prague, many of whom were hopeful of finally seeing his first visit since the NHL's 2004-05 lockout.

Boris Gomez, a Canadian expatriate who lives in Prague and works as a financial analyst for a Czech Bank, said the buzz around the city has quieted because of Jagr's exit.

"Initially, I was very enthusiastic," Gomez told CBCSports.ca. "But the absence of Jagr takes away some of the lustre. From what I have picked up in the media, there are some crestfallen observers out there given that both Jagr and [former Ranger Martin] Straka are not showing up.

"A couple of colleagues were mainly looking forward to seeing these veterans play. I mean, who [cares] about Vinny Prospal."

Gomez is referring to the lack of Czech stars competing this weekend. Petr Prucha and Michal Rozsival will play for New York, with Prospal and Radim Vrbata suiting up for the Lightning. None of these four players match the appeal or scoring prowess of Jagr.

Jagr absence doesn't affect ticket sales

His absence, however, has not quelled the Czech fans' desire to be a part of history by witnessing the first two NHL games played in the Czech Republic. Organizers for the contests, which will be played at the 17,000-seat 02 Arena that was built for the 2004 world championships, had no problems selling out the place.

Despite the steep price of the seats — tickets range from $120 to more than $500 — the experience of watching a live NHL game simply outweighed the cost of the event.

"I am planning to attend," said Brian Wardrop, a Torontonian working in Prague as a venture capitalist.

"This is a hot ticket in Prague, and it is widely considered to be the most sought-after spectator sports ticket in the Czech Republic this year. Hockey is a big sport in the Czech Republic and there is a high level of NHL awareness amongst Czechs already."

Organizers admit their large investment would've been a tougher sell had they not dangled Jagr's possible return home.

Tickets were snapped up within 27 hours when they became available to fans earlier this year, months before Jagr left for Russia.

Ceska Sportovni, a marketing firm, shelled out $6 million to cover travel and accommodation expenses for both teams. The company also reimbursed the Rangers for relinquishing a sold-out game at Madison Square Garden.

"Jagr is like a god here," Vladimir Safarik, Ceska Sportovni's chief executive officer, told Canwest News Service. "It was our priority to bring him here and unfortunately, it didn't go our way. But it definitely helped our ticket sales."

Stamkos making NHL debut

While Czechs won't get to see their favourite son play, they will have the opportunity to witness a potential future star as Tampa Bay centre Steven Stamkos is anticipated to make his NHL debut on Saturday.

The 18-year-old from Scarborough, Ont., was the first overall pick by the Lightning at the 2008 NHL entry draft, and is considered a great offensive talent with all the necessary skills to become a franchise player.

As with some of the recent No. 1 picks, Stamkos is expected to make an immediate impact this season, a goal he shares for himself.

"I know the media will compare me to the [Sidney] Crosbys, [Alex] Ovechkins and [Patrick] Kanes, who came into the league and tore it up at a young age," Stamkos said.

"For me, I'm just going to go in and hope for the best. In saying that, I'm going to work as hard as I can with the goal of producing and becoming a good player right away."

With files from Randi Druzin