Commentary

Jagr talks NHL; Belarus-Sweden, Part II

Updated: February 20, 2010, 1:32 AM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- There is, after all this time, something still mystical, magical, perhaps even a little polarizing about Jaromir Jagr.

Looking part Bohemian artist, part Gastown hobo, Jagr has so far proved at these Games that his self-imposed exile to the Kontinental Hockey League these past two seasons hasn't dulled his instincts for the game or his sharp, sometimes misunderstood humor.

"You just didn't see me for the last two years, that's why, that's the way I play right now," he said with a laugh when a reporter suggested he looked sharp here at the Olympic tournament. "I lost some weight; I'm lighter than I was before. You have to be because on the big ice [in the KHL] you have to skate more. I lost like 7 kilos. It's given me extra jump. But nothing special."

Jagr told reporters Friday that his contract with Avangard Omsk of the KHL is up at the end of the season and he'd like to return to the NHL. He also said he loves playing in Russia, so who knows.

"The NHL is a special league, no question about it; it has a lot of history. I played like 18 years in the NHL, then I decided I would go back to Russia," Jagr said. "I cannot say anything about my decision because I don't want to look back. I'm going to finish my contract and make a decision about what I'm going to do next. They treat me so well in Russia, it would be hard to leave them. But on the other side, I want to try to maybe come here [NHL]."

His play early on in the Olympic tournament suggests Jagr would still be a welcome addition to many teams. Through the Czech Republic's first two games (wins against Slovakia and Latvia), Jagr has two goals and an assist.

"I think after two years in Russia, I'm going to be a better player than I was before I left. I know that. I found out during the lockout when I played the whole year in Russia and I came back [to the NHL] and I had probably my best year in New York," Jagr said. "The skating on the big ice [in the KHL], the practices, it's not easy to play there. You practice a lot harder than in the NHL. On the big ice, you have to skate; I played a lot on the big ice, sometimes I play on two lines. If I decided to come back [to the NHL], I think I would be a better player than before I left."

Beyond the points he has collected in Vancouver, Jagr continues to be a master at using his big body to control the play, making deft passes to linemates Petr Cajanek and Roman Cervenka or driving the net like a bull.

Still, there is a sense from some of the Czechs that they have grown weary of answering questions about the erstwhile Jagr. Captain Patrik Elias snapped when asked after the Latvia game about Jagr's play.

"I'm not going to answer that," Elias said. "If you guys want to talk about Jagr, ask him. It's about the whole team, so he's playing well and that's all we can ask for from him."

Not everyone minds being asked about one of the game's greatest players.

"He's still the same guy. I remember him from the 2005 world championships, and he's the same," former NHLer Josef Vasicek told ESPN.com. "He's joking around and having fun. He loves the game. He's a big factor to our team, and we're really happy to have him on our side.

"He's got it. He's got it," he said. "He's got a great sense for hockey. That's something that he was born with. That's what he's using all the time. He's at the top of his game right now."

As for the scruffy gray-speckled beard he has taken to wearing, Jagr professed uncertainty over the look, as well.

"That's what I'm asking myself, too," he said with a laugh. "It's not gray, I just did it [colored it]. I wanted to look a little bit older."

Welcome back, Jagr.

Belarus and Sweden

Eight years ago in Salt Lake City, I sat down for a quarterfinal game among a sparse crowd on what seemed like a sleepy morning.

I remember sitting beside legendary columnist and author Roy MacGregor, and the two of us, like everyone else in the hockey world, thought we were getting ready for an onslaught between powerhouse Sweden and hockey minnow Belarus. The Swedes had just romped through the preliminary round, including a 5-2 rout of Canada.

Two and half hours and a Vladimir Kopat knuckle shot later, Roy and I were in a frenzied interview area trying to coax an explanation from a stunned Swedish team. I'll never forget Mats Sundin staring out into space and repeatedly saying he had no idea what to say or how to explain what had just happened.

As far as Olympic hockey upsets go, it might take a backseat only to the "Miracle on Ice." On Friday morning, a veteran Swedish hockey writer was reliving the Belarus upset and says that despite the 2006 gold medal in Torino, he believes the '02 squad was still the best collage of talent in Swedish hockey history. He still couldn't believe it happened.

Eight years later, Sweden and Belarus met again for the first time in the Olympics since the big game. The joke in the press box was that Sweden would really lay it on to make amends.

Well, by the time Dmitry Meleshko scored 11:33 into the third period Friday to cut Sweden's lead to 3-2, the Salt Lake flashbacks were coming fast and furious. A few shifts later, Konstantin Zakharov hit the crossbar as the crowd at Canada Hockey Place buzzed about the possible script relived eight years later.

It was not to be this time. Daniel Alfredsson scored with 11 seconds to go in the third period to end the threat, a 4-2 win by the skin of the Swedes' teeth.

"The difference is this is not a quarterfinal," Alfredsson said afterward, trying to downplay the 2002 comparison. "The only thing we had to lose today was to embarrass ourselves in front of the media, and I can handle that. As long as I don't have to go home. I wasn't that worried about that. I thought we played pretty composed down the stretch. We fended them off pretty good."

Swedish blueliner Mattias Ohlund chuckled when asked whether he was reliving the 2002 game when Belarus made it 3-2 Friday.

"Honestly I never thought about it," he said. "It was such a different scenario. That was a quarterfinal game. I know every game is big, but if we lose this game, you still get another shot at it. You're not packing your bags and going home. Maybe the four of us [holdovers from Torino] thought about it a bit. The other guys I don't think were too concerned with it."

Captain Nicklas Lidstrom also smiled when I suggested that surely, even for a fleeting moment, the thought must have crossed his mind during the game.

"I knew this question was going to come," he said. "But no, it's different. Last time was an elimination game and this is still round-robin. But I thought the team handled themselves well after they got the second goal."

The Swedes were having none of the '02 comparison, but Belarus absolutely felt it. And why not, it's a victory that still resonates today in that hockey nation.

"You talk about it, you try to use this as motivation for young kids so they can believe in themselves because they never, some of our guys, they never play against guys like they have," captain Ruslan Salei said after Friday's close call. "It's been eight years ago. That game was totally different game and now we have totally different teams, but every game is different. But you want to get that feeling, you want to get that confidence back, you want to get that winning attitude back."

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.