Back in NHL, turning 40, Jagr remains a force
Wednesday, 02.15.2012 / 9:00 AM / NHL Insider
By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor
When Jaromir Jagr burst on the NHL scene at age 18, he skated like the wind, scored at will and seemed like 80 percent of his body weight was contained in his lustrous, jet-black mullet.
Twenty-two years later, the mullet is long gone, the hair is thinner and tinged with a few stray grays, and there's 240 pounds packed onto his 6-foot-3 frame.
But what hasn't changed is the joy and sublime skills he brings to the rink every day.
"I don't act like I'm 40 years old," Jagr, who celebrates his 40th birthday on Feb. 15, told NHL.com. "Sometimes I can act like them (the young guys)."
NEARLY A FLYER BACK IN 1990
The Flyers had the fourth pick at the 1990 Entry Draft, but were faced with a bit of a problem. To Russ Farwell, the team's general manager at the time, the best player available in their mind was a skinny Czechoslovakian forward named Jaromir Jagr; however, Farwell said he didn't know if he would be able to sell the Philadelphia fan base on selecting a European forward.
So when it came time for the Flyers to make their selection, they opted for the safe pick -- Peterborough Petes center Mike Ricci.
Ricci was a serviceable player, but spent only two seasons with the Flyers before being sent to Quebec as part of the Eric Lindros trade.
When the Flyers passed on Jagr, the Penguins quickly selected him, and won the Stanley Cup in Jagr's first two seasons.
And twenty-one years after nearly adding Jagr to the roster, current Flyers GM Paul Holmgren -- who would have been Jagr's coach had he joined the Flyers in 1990 -- signed Jagr as a free agent July 1, 2011.
-- Adam Kimelman
"We try to keep him young in this dressing room," linemate Scott Hartnell told NHL.com.
Back in the NHL after a three-year stint in Russia, Jagr barely looks like he's missed a beat. Despite sitting out a handful of games with a nagging groin injury, he has 13 goals and 26 assists in 48 games.
More than that, though, his leadership has helped a Flyers team that has seen seven rookies become major contributors grow into a squad that has spent all season fighting for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
"You really wouldn't know (he's 40) the way he trains and practices," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette said. "His attitude … I think sometimes age is what you make it to be. He doesn't lean on that he's approaching 40. He doesn't come to practice like that. He doesn't look for days off. He doesn't use that. Actually, it's the exact opposite. He's been a terrific influence on our younger players … having them after practice or getting them extra work or coming back to the rink for some extra work. Just having his experience in the locker room, you wouldn't know that he's closing in on that number, and he doesn't play that card. He's been great."
The mentor role is one Jagr easily has adapted to.
"He's really different than I thought he'd be," teammate Jody Shelley told Yahoo! Sports earlier this season. "Just a great guy to be around for every single one of us."
"The young guys, they were watching me on TV when I was playing," Jagr said with a laugh.
Or, like teammate Jakub Voracek, they grew up with Jagr posters on their bedroom walls.
"He was the best player in the world," Voracek told NHL.com. "From the Czech Republic, from my hometown (Kladno), so every young kid had his poster on the wall."
From Pittsburgh to Prague and almost all points in between, Jagr was a superstar almost right from his first day in the NHL.
The fifth pick of the 1990 Entry Draft, Jagr had 27 goals as an 18-year-old in the 1990-91 season, and added 13 points in 24 playoff games to help the Penguins capture the franchise's first Stanley Cup.
"He was 18 and 19 when he came over," Mark Recchi, a teammate on that '91 Cup team, told NHL.com. "He was a young, baby-faced kid that came over from Czech, didn't speak any English. But you could see his raw skill. He was very raw at the time, but he was very skilled. He had a great work ethic, I remember that."
The next season, he had 32 goals and 69 points in the regular season and 24 points in 21 playoffs games as the Pens repeated as Cup champion. He tied for second in the postseason with four game-winning goals, including game-winners in three straight.
That season also was the first of 12 straight 30-goal seasons, topped by a high of 62 in 1995-96. He also had 149 points that season, second in the League to teammate Mario Lemieux.
In 11 seasons with the Pens, Jagr ranks second to Lemieux on the franchise's all-time list in games played (806), goals (439), assists (640) and points (1,079). He won five Art Ross Trophies (four straight from 1997-2001), two Ted Lindsay awards and the 1999 Hart Trophy.
After a disappointing three-season stint in Washington, he was traded to the New York Rangers and again elevated his game. In 2005-06 he was second in the League in goals (54) and points (123), was a finalist for the Hart Trophy, and helped the Rangers return to the playoffs after a seven-season absence. The next season he was named team captain. The Rangers won a playoff series each of the next two seasons, but when Jagr's contract was up after the 2007-08 season, no NHL team showed significant interest and he signed with Avangard Omsk in the KHL.
"Maybe I was looking for something," Jagr told Sports Illustrated. "Russia changed me. Not much pressure. Not many distractions. Not many rules. I could follow my own, and I took them seriously."
He had three solid seasons overseas, playing at nearly a point-per-game level (145 points in 155 games). Rumors of an NHL return popped up occasionally, but after a strong showing at the 2011 World Championship, a number of teams shifted their interest to high.
Rumors swirled over the summer that Jagr would return to the Penguins, or possibly sign with Detroit. But on July 1, it was the Flyers who stunned the hockey world, signing Jagr to a one-year, $3.3 million contract.
"He was 18 and 19 when he came over. He was a young, baby-faced kid that came over from Czech, didn't speak any English. But you could see his raw skill. He was very raw at the time, but he was very skilled. He had a great work ethic, I remember that." -- Mark Recchi
"I know our guys that saw him in the World Championship thought he was terrific," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren told NHL.com over the summer. "The one thing we can't discount is the fact that he's a highly motivated guy that wants to come and be part of something special again in the NHL. When you're a world-class talent, which he has been in the past, I know his fitness regimen and how he trains is second to none right now. We're anxious to see how he looks when he comes in. He's ready to get going being a Flyer."
Jagr said he picked the Flyers because he believed all their offseason changes -- chiefly the departure of top-six forwards Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Ville Leino -- would allow him to compete for significant playing time. However, Jagr said he had no idea what it would be like coming back to the League after three years away.
"I didn't have any (expectations)," he said. "I said, 'What the hell? I'm going to try. If it's not going to work, I'm going home.'"
It's worked quite splendidly, as Jagr quickly formed dynamic chemistry with All-Stars Claude Giroux and Hartnell. He's also provided leadership off the ice, with his work ethic and after-hours "Jagr Hockey School" drawing teammates to his occasional night-time workouts at the team's practice facility.
"He loves hockey more than any guy maybe in the room," Shelley, a frequent Jagr Hockey School student, told Yahoo! Sports. "I've never seen guys do it before, let alone Jaromir Jagr."
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 39
SOG: 116 | +/-: 8
For Jagr, though, it's one of the concessions he's made to his advanced age -- perhaps his only one.
"You have to practice a lot harder," Jagr said. "I know that. You've got to love the game so much that even if you're tired, you still have to go there. Sometimes I don't want to go run at night, but I know if I don't do it, tomorrow I'm going to feel worse than I did the night before. That's what's pushing me."
Jagr said he's undecided if he'll extend his time in the NHL, tabling all contract discussion for the offseason. He said he'll be the first one to know whether he still has enough left for another season.
His teammates, however, have seen all they need to know that while times -- and Jagr's appearance -- have changed, Jagr's skill level hasn't.
"He's a great guy in the locker room, he's a lot of fun to be around," Voracek said. "He's still showing he can play at the top level in the NHL at 40. Only a few guys can do it. That's why he's so special."