What We Know About Jaromír Jágr

Now 40, the ice-hockey superstar and "fourth-greatest living Czech" remains enigmatic

A few years ago he was voted the 27th greatest Czech of all time. But among those still living, he ranks fourth, beaten only by President Václav Klaus, legendary crooner Karel Gott and actor/scriptwriter Zdeněk Svěrák. Ice-hockey player Jaromír Jágr celebrated his 40th birthday earlier this month, an event that was impossible to miss in the Czech Republic. He's everywhere: constantly on TV, in newspapers and magazines, and even on billboards. Even people who normally ignore hockey recognize his short, determined-sounding surname, reminiscent of a comic-book hero's. In short, Jágr is a Czech phenomenon. He's also much younger than the other Czechs mentioned above, and surprisingly little known. We know plenty about Klaus, Gott and Svěrák. We constantly hear about their strengths and weaknesses. But what do we know about Jágr?

It's the same problem we have with all sportsmen. Jágr is more or less reduced to a "merrily sounding cantata" in the sports sections of newspapers. Sportswriters keep repeating the same idea over and over again: "Jágr is great, Jágr is the best!" Articles about him traditionally list the endless number of trophies he's won and repeat the confessions of Jágr relatives who want to build up his legacy.

Before Jaromír Jágr became famous, he was an ordinary guy -- one who suddenly broke into a world of big money and unimaginable fame. Along the way, he didn't do anything he didn't want to. That's a statement, not a rebuke. The number "68" on his jersey suggested he had more on his mind than just hockey pucks. He won most of the highest honors the sport has to offer but never managed to do what several other hockey players have done: captain a team to victory in North America's National Hockey League (NHL). As an inexperienced young man with little knowledge of English, he quickly took advantage of the regime change and, together with mama Jágr, jetted off to Pittsburgh in the early '90s. He was just 17. His career skyrocketed and he soon became enamored with fashion models, fast cars and wasting money in casinos. He was entertaining, but also moody and selfish, and always required his coaches and teammates to adjust to his style of play and needs.

The constantly asked question about Jágr -- whether he was the best player in the world or not -- was a little pointless. Around 10 years ago American journalists, who have been significantly more critical of Jágr, were engaged in a debate over how best to deal with the arrogant star. The fourth-greatest Czech told them then: "I'm a troublemaker and I've been one since I was 10." But he quickly added: "But I also like all the boys around me. I like people. I like having fun." This is precisely his charm: Jágr is a magnificent player and, regardless of all the trophies and superlatives, he isn't a conceited man and he enjoys entertaining people. That's what matters most in sports -- and in "Greatest Czech" surveys.

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