Monday, August 15, 2016

Washington Capitals: If Players Were Presidents -- Jaromir Jagr

By April 1865 the Civil War in the United States was approaching the end.  Decimated and exhausted, the Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee surrendered to the Army of the Potomac under General Ulysses S. Grant on April 9th.  After more than four years of war, it was time for reconstruction.  But not until there was one more thunderclap in the course of the war.  Five days after Lee’s surrender, President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington.  The vacancy in the office of the chief executive would be filled by Andrew Johnson, who barely a month earlier was Military Governor of Tennessee and had just taken the oath of office as Vice President.  He now found himself in the position of serving as the Nation’s 17th President.

Johnson was suddenly in a difficult position.  A Southerner (born in North Carolina) and a Democrat (Lincoln was a Republican), he did not seem a natural fit to succeed Lincoln under the unique circumstances confronting him.  He came to Washington as something of an outsider and from the start was treated as such by a hostile Congress.  It made for a difficult presidency that would culminate in Johnson’s impeachment in 1868.  Although he was acquitted by a narrow margin his presidency was effectively over.  Although he ran for renomination as a Democratic candidate for President in 1868, he was roundly defeated, and his last days in office were bitter, his successor Ulysses S. Grant refusing to ride to the Capitol with Johnson for the inauguration ceremony and Johnson refusing to attend at all.

Although he came to Washington under other circumstances, there was a player who came to the Capitals as something of an outsider, if not from the “other side,” whose performance never quite measured up to his promise or the demands of his position, who ultimately inspired scorn and ill feelings in Capitals Nation, and who would be ushered out of town when the relationship between the player and the club, including its fan base deteriorated beyond repair.  If Andrew Johnson has a parallel among players who have worn the Capitals jersey, that player is Jaromir Jagr.

Andrew Johnson was a man of considerable political talent.  He began his political pursuits as a political organizer in Tennessee, eventually winning election as a town alderman in Greenville, Tennessee.  In the midst of debate over a new state constitution, Johnson’s prominent role led to his being elected mayor. From there his rise was steady, moving on to the Tennessee House of Representatives.  Later he parlayed his position as a presidential elector in the election of 1840 into winning a seat in the Tennessee Senate.  From there it was up to the next rung of the political ladder, winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1842.  Johnson served in that position for ten years before being persuaded to run for Governor of Tennessee.  He won office in 1852, but the position holding little power (he could not veto legislation, for example), he ran for U.S. Senate in 1856 and, as a perceived champion of farmers, common workers, and states’ rights – essentially a “Jacksonian Democrat,” a reference to fellow Tennessean Andrew Jackson – he won election. 

It was all prelude to the election of 1860, one in which Johnson eyed the ultimate prize, the Presidency, as a candidate who could unite warring factions of the Democratic Party split over the slavery question.  The fissures in the party were too wide for Johnson to bridge.  Much too wide.  At a nominating convention that featured nine candidates winning delegates, the party took 57 ballots to finally settle on Stephen Douglas.  Stalled there, he would be named Military Governor of Tennessee by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, and it would be a useful office to put him in position to get Lincoln’s eye as a possible running mate in 1864.  As a southerner “War Democrat,” Johsnon had appeal to Lincoln, and in one of the oddities in American political history, Lincoln and Johnson became running mates in 1864, not as “Republican” and “”Democrat,” but as running mates on the ticket of the “National Union Party,” comprised of factions of the Republican Party.

The Lincoln-Johnson ticket won election, and a month after taking office, Johnson found himself elevated by fate to the Presidency.  With the Civil War winding down after the surrender by the Confederacy, Johnson found himself presiding over reconstruction in the absence of Congress, which was not in session.  Governing by “proclamation” proved difficult, especially when Congress returned to session at the end of 1865.  A group of “Radical Republicans” were bent on changing the direction Johnson pursued.  It resulted in efforts to refuse to seat any Senator or Representative from states of the Old Confederacy, a series of bills that Johnson vetoed (subsequently overridden by Congress), passage of a significant civil rights bill, establishing military rule in the South, and passing the Tenure of Office Act, a technical bill that sought to restrict the President’s authority to remove certain executive officers without approval of the Senate.  Johnson vetoed the bill, but Congress overrode the veto. 

That bill would serve as the basis for a move against Johnson in 1868.  What brought it on was Johnson suspending Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, one of the “Radical Republicans,” pending the next Senate session.  When the Senate reconvened,  it rejected the suspension, but Johnson moved to appoint a replacement for Stanton nonetheless.  Johnson’s action was intended to serve as a test case to be presented to the Supreme Court, but the House of Representatives moved to impeach Johnson, the first impeachment of a sitting President.  Eleven articles of impeachment were reported, and the Senate acquitted Johnson by a single vote on three of those articles.

The impeachment took its toll, on both Johnson and the Republican Party.  No Republican senator voting against impeachment ever served in elective office again.  The whole episode inspired a movement to abolish the Presidency itself, that Johnson’s impeachment proved that the office had become too powerful.  As for Johnson, his relationship with Congress was beyond repair.  He sent a government reform proposal to Congress to limit presidential terms and provide for direct election of the President and senators, but it was never taken up by Congress.  Congress sent a bill to the President requiring prompt reporting of ratification of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution granting citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States.  Johnson vetoed the bill.  By the time Johnson left office in 1869, government had become dysfunctional, damaged by conflicts of personality and policy, making for a difficult reconstruction period in the post-Civil War era.

By the time Jaromir Jagr came to the Capitals in July 2001, he was a notorious figure in Capitals history as a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins.  It was a reputation largely earned as a Cap killer in the post season.  In his career as a Penguin, no player scored points in more games (33).   In 42 postseason games against the Caps, Jagr was 20-32-52, plus-20.  Four of his 20 goals were game-winners; he had six power play goals and two shorthanded goals.  He might have played in the shadow of teammate Mario Lemieux for much of his career in Pittsburgh, but against the Caps he was the player who as often as not placed the dagger in Caps’ postseason hopes.

Things were not all unicorns and accordions in Pittsburgh, though, at the end of the 2000-2001 season.  The Penguins were in an aging arena, the financial situation was dire, and Jagr was entering the last year of his contract with the promise of a very large payday coming in free agency.  The team was concerned about Jagr for other reasons.  He had already requested a trade twice, he was reported to have odd off-ice habits, and he finished the season with a shoulder injury.  He was described as “sullen,” and the teams clearly seemed to want to grant his request for a trade and turn the page.

The New York Rangers were widely thought of as being the leading, if not the only candidate to serve as a trading partner with Pittsburgh for Jagr’s services.  However, on July 11, 2001, the Penguins pulled the trigger on the trade, but not to the Rangers.  Pittsburgh sent Jagr and defenseman Frantisek Kucera to the Caps for three prospects – forwards Kris Beech and Michal Sivek, and defenseman Ross Lupaschuk – and future considerations (cash).  The Rangers tried to put the best spin on not getting the prize,  but failing to make the deal was a shock.

Jagr arrived in Washington to great hoopla.  When he recorded a goal and an assist in a 6-1 win over the New Jersey Devils in his debut with the Caps on Opening Night 2001, and when the club announced on October 18th that it signed Jagr to a contract extension, it looked as if the club might finally achieve the success that long eluded it. Things started to sour quickly, though.  Jagr missed seven of the Caps’ first 17 games with leg injuries, and despite the fact that he was 5-3-8 in the ten games he did play over the Caps’ 17 games to open the season, the Caps were just 6-9-2 (4-4-2 in games in which Jagr played).

It really never got much better for the Caps or Jagr in the 2001-2002 season.  Jagr was producing at about a point-per-game pace, but it was not what was expected of the five-time Ross Trophy winner (most points).  Meanwhile, the Caps struggled to get to the .500 mark.  On March 16th they were 27-31-10-1 and sitting in 11th place in the Eastern Conference, four points behind the Montreal Canadiens for the last playoff spot in the East.  The Caps closed with a rush from that point, going 9-2-1-1, and Jagr went 4-11-15, plus-5, but it was not enough for the Caps to reach the postseason.  They finished two points behind the Canadiens for the last playoff spot in the East.

The failure to reach the postseason cost head coach Ron Wilson his job, and the job of leading the Caps was given to Bruch Cassidy, a first-time NHL head coach.  The change in head coach did not inspire Jagr to improve on his previous year’s numbers.  They were certainly adequate for most NHL players – 36-41-77 in 75 games – but he fell in the scoring rankings from a tie for fifth in the 2001-2002 season to a tie for 19th in 2002-2003.  And, when his scoring dried up after the first two games of the Caps’ opening round playoff series against the Tampa Bay Lightning (games the Caps would win) on their way to a six-game loss to the Bolts, it became evident that Jagr was not the key to unlock the safe where postseason success was kept.

When the Caps started the 2003-2004 season 3-11-1 in their first 15 games, any lingering doubt that the team as constructed would be successful was gone.  Jagr was 4-6-10, minus-3 in those first 15 games, and the problems were rippling through the organization.  Trade rumors about Jagr were in full bloom. 

Things only got worse for the Caps.  Cassidy was relieved as head coach in mid-December with the Caps holding an 8-18-1-1 record.  Things did not get better under new head coach Glen Hanlon.  His club did not win consecutive games until early January, but by that time any realistic hope the Caps would reach the postseason were gone.  On January 23rd, with the Caps carrying a 14-27-5-2 record and sitting 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference, the team traded Jagrto the New York Rangers for forward Anson Carter.

Andrew Johnson’s career in politics did not end with his term as President in 1869.  He ran unsuccessfully for both U.S. Senate and for a U.S. House seats, but ran for the Senate once more in 1875.  He served only five months, though, when he suffered a stroke and passed away on July 31, 1875.  Despite what he viewed as vindication his election to the Senate provided, it would do little for his place in history.  He is generally considered among the Nation’s worst presidents

As for Jagr, his career hardly ended with his trade to the Rangers.  Since leaving the Caps he has appeared in 633 regular season NHL games and another 155 games in the KHL.  His 588 points scored since leaving Washington by itself ranks in the top-40 among active scorers in the NHL.  In Washington, though, his stay is largely regarded as equal parts disappointing and atrocious.  His name does not inspire fond memories among Capitals fans.

Of Andrew Johnson it is written that “when…he gained the highest power, he proved incapable of using it in an effective and beneficial manner.”  The same might be said of Jaromir Jagr who, as the highest paid player in the game at the time, could not perform in “an effective and beneficial manner.”  In that respect there is much in common between these two individuals.

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