The rumors had been circulating the way they typically do, reaching everyone except the person most affected by them.
It was early April, and word was that the Bruins were putting together a trade to bring in Jaromir Jagr.
David Krejci had no idea. Not even while reporters kept hinting at it.
Growing up in the Czech Republic, Krejci idolized Jagr, the way every young hockey player there was supposed to. He hung posters of Jagr on his bedroom wall.
Krejci knew the trade deadline was near and that moves were going to be made, but the Bruins had gotten back from Buffalo a couple days earlier, and Krejci had the Ottawa Senators on his mind.
That night he scored a first-period goal and helped on Nathan Horton’s third-period game-winner.
The next day, his idol was his teammate. For a talented player who picked his spots in the regular season but has been overpowering in the postseason, that presence has had an impact.
“Jags has come in and been a good influence on everybody,” said coach Claude Julien. “His work ethic speaks volumes.
“But for David Krejci, probably a little bit more special because he is a superstar in his country, a Hall of Famer, and probably the most famous Czech player ever. When David sees him coming in our dressing room, it’s pretty exciting.
“I think right now, Jags is pretty excited about David Krejci’s play, as well.”
No one has pulled the strings on this postseason the way the 27-year-old Krejci has. His 9 goals put him at the top of the leaderboard, as do his 21 points.
In some ways, he has become a barometer for the Bruins.
This season, when Krejci scores a goal, the Bruins are 13-3.
In 2010, when the Bruins took a 3-0 lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals, Krejci dislocated his wrist in Game 3. The Bruins went on to lose the series.
The next season, he played all 25 postseason games and led the Cup-winning Bruins with 12 goals and 23 points.
“Everybody can see when he’s on his game,” said defenseman Andrew Ference. “He’s controlling the pace of the of the play and just playing with an extreme confidence. I think that’s the biggest thing that he has over a lot of guys is confidence to make plays, a calmness about him in certain situations.
“He’s not an emotional roller coaster. He really is pretty calm in big situations and overtimes and big games and stuff like that.”
The puzzling part of Krejci’s brilliance is that it flashes so briefly in the regular season. He has put up eye-popping numbers, like a 73-point season in 2008-09, and then quieter years like this lockout-shortened one (10 goals, 23 assists).
But in this postseason, matched up against high-wattage names like Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash, and Phil Kessel, his play has put him at the top of the marquee. It is the kind of pressure Jagr faced in his early days with the Penguins, and Jagr has been able to pass on some of that experience.
“I think Jaromir Jagr put some confidence into him, just by his arrival,” said NBC analyst Pierre McGuire, who was an assistant coach for Pittsburgh in 1991-92.
“Jaromir, who’s no shrinking violet, I think he came in and really helped David Krejci understand the importance of stardom, the importance of how to be a star, and more importantly than anything else, how to make the players around him better.”
Since he was a 19-year-old enigma, Jagr had to navigate the idolatry that surrounded him. The interest in him went beyond hockey. It was the music he listened to. The movies he watched.
He was more than just the player in whom the Penguins invested the fifth overall pick of the 1990 draft. He was a teen star who had basked in the Czech spotlight, playing in World Championships, but also a young man starting a new career in a foreign country.
In Pittsburgh, the moment Jagr walked in the dressing room, he was surrounded by stars with blinding luminosity, such as Mario Lemieux, Ron Francis, and Bryan Trottier. With stardom staring him down, Jagr’s potential for greatness equaled his potential to be overwhelmed.
The Penguins brain trust knew this. Jagr spoke no English. He’d get homesick. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he would get confused and try to use his ATM card as an ID.
He needed someone to teach him how to be a star in the NHL, but before that, he needed someone to help him function as a person.
“He needed a countryman that could help him translate a lot of different issues that were going around our dressing room and on our bench in Pittsburgh at the time,” said McGuire.
The answer came in December of Jagr’s rookie season when Pittsburgh traded for vagabond defenseman Jiri Hrdina. He was from the Czech Republic. He had trotted the globe playing hockey until finally reaching the NHL when he was 30.
“Hrdina came in and really helped Jaromir take his game to another level,” McGuire said. “It allowed Jaromir to get more and more comfortable.”
The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992. Jagr’s adjustment was a large part of it.
In 1991, Hrdina told the Globe, “It all depends on what kind of personality you have. Some guys don’t talk too much at home, so they have a much harder time adjusting than Jaromir because he’s an outspoken guy. He’s always joking around. It really helps because the guys see he’s trying to learn the language and adjust and fit in.
“The language barrier can be tough because sometimes you don’t understand what the coach wants from you and it makes it much more difficult to do those things on the ice. And you miss your friends and your family, and those things together sometimes are tough. But he’s done a great job.”
In 11 seasons with the Penguins, Jagr would watch the demographics of the locker room change so drastically that he would joke, “I’m glad to have a lot of Czechs here, but eight is too many. We should have a four-Czech maximum.”
But he became to them what Hrdina was to him. In the dusk of his career, he has become a similar figure to Krejci.
“It’s a good balance right there,” said Julien. “But when you look up at people . . . I always said I was a big fan of Bobby Orr, and to have Bobby walk into our office just to talk means a lot.
“Same thing goes for David with Jags right now. To have him in our dressing room and to look at him sitting near him and getting a chance to play with him means a lot. I think it’s certainly had some sort of an impact on him.
Krejci steps it up in the playoffs
David Krejci, the NHL’s leading scorer this postseason, has made it a habit of increasing his scoring production following the regular season. His point-per-game averages in each of his playoff years with the Bruins:
|2007-08||0.48||0.71 (7 games)|
|2008-09||0.89||0.73 (11 games)|
|2009-10||0.66||0.89 (9 games)|
|2010-11||0.83||0.92 (25 games)|
|2011-12||0.78||0.43 (7 games)|
|2012-13||0.70||1.31 (16 games)|
Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.