By JEFF Z. KLEIN
December 28, 2013
Jaromir Jagr (68) has been, at age 41, the Devils’ leading scorer and a surprise even to the team, which signed him after Ilya Kovalchuk left for Russia. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEWARK — As the milestones mount, the quips keep coming.
Jaromir Jagr held court in the Devils’ locker room after surpassing another hockey great’s achievement, cracking jokes in his thick Czech accent, always on the hunt for the punch line.
On Dec. 18, Jagr scored the 122nd game-winning goal of his N.H.L. career, breaking Gordie Howe’s record. Did he know much about Howe, who retired in 1980?
“I never played against him,” Jagr said, pausing for reporters’ laughter. “No, he’s Mr. Hockey. It’s a big honor for me to break his record. That’s why I practice, so I can be strong in the third period.”
Was he finally turning serious?
“It’s all about me, scoring the game-winning goals,” Jagr added, then flashed a grin. “Just kidding.”
In the past 30 days, Jagr, 41, passed Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman on the N.H.L. list for career goals, and is with Mark Messier in seventh place with 694. He was also a point short of seventh place in career points, occupied by Lemieux with 1,723, after assisting on a goal in the Devils’ 2-1 victory against the Islanders on Saturday.
Jagr will turn 42 during the Olympics in February in Sochi, Russia; the Czech Republic team will be announced next month. But he has longer-range plans.
“I hope to play in them after I go back to Czech,” Jagr said, referring to the 2018 Olympics.
Jagr’s performance this season has been a surprise gift to the Devils and to hockey. When General Manager Lou Lamoriello signed him as a free agent in July, many regarded him as a fill-in on power plays and on spot shifts, an honorable coda to a career of more than a quarter-century with 11 clubs in five countries. No one expected him to be the Devils’ leading scorer.
Jagr came to the N.H.L. as a teenager sporting a mullet and wearing No. 68 in honor of his grandfather’s resistance to the 1968 Soviet invasion. He played 11 years in Pittsburgh, where he and Lemieux won two Stanley Cups and it was often noted that Jaromir was an anagram of Mario Jr. From there, Jagr went to Washington, then spent three and a half years leading the Rangers’ Czech contingent. He also played for Kladno, his hometown team, and for Avangard Omsk in Siberia.
After three years in the Russian K.H.L., he returned to the N.H.L. in 2011 with Philadelphia, his hair shorter and his whiskers flecked with gray. Last season, Jagr wound up with Boston for the Bruins’ trip to the Stanley Cup finals.
He has won five N.H.L. scoring titles, an Olympic gold medal and two world championships. He has overcome gambling and tax problems. He has never taken an N.H.L. fighting major penalty. He has left a long trail of delighted fans and teammates with highlight-reel goals like the one he scored against Chicago in the 1992 Cup finals, when he stick-handled through four Blackhawks and backhanded the puck past goalie Ed Belfour.
But Jagr looked slow and did not score a goal in Boston’s 22-game run to the finals last season. Some said he could not handle the grind of an N.H.L. schedule anymore.
Lamoriello, however, understood that Jagr played 101 games last season: 33 with the Bruins, 34 before that with Dallas and 34 with Kladno during the lockout. He figured Jagr still had something left and could help make up for Ilya Kovalchuk’s departure to St. Petersburg, Russia.
“I didn’t know what to expect from Jaromir,” Devils Coach Peter DeBoer said. “I watched him in Dallas last year and he was a very good player, almost a point-a-game guy. I watched him in Boston, on the third line in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and I thought he was a very good player in that role, even though he wasn’t producing at the level he had.”
He added: “The thing with players when they get up in age is you never know how much they’re going to lose from one year to the next, so that was the intangible. But because of his conditioning and how he takes care of himself, he hasn’t lost anything from last year. Which makes him the player we thought he was going to be, which is a very good one.”
More than very good, Jagr has been the Devils’ best player. He has 13 goals and 21 assists and was a team-leading plus-11 heading into Saturday.
Although tired of being asked if he is surprised to be playing so well, Jagr inevitably makes a joke about it.
“Honestly, I thought I was going to be better,” Jagr will say. “But I’m working on it. I’m going to get better.”
Other aging N.H.L. skaters have done well. Howe scored 15 goals for the Hartford Whalers before retiring at 51; Chris Chelios played defense for the Atlanta Thrashers at 48. Teemu Selanne, 43 and in his farewell season, had 11 points in 30 games for the league-leading Anaheim Ducks going into Saturday. Daniel Alfredsson, 41, is among the Detroit Red Wings’ top scorers.
But Jagr is on track to become the N.H.L.’s oldest team scoring leader; he will be 42 years and almost 2 months old at the end of the season. Howe holds the current mark, according to Elias Sports Bureau, at 42 years 5 days when he led the 1969-70 Red Wings in points.
Goalie Martin Brodeur noted Jagr’s value to the Devils.
“Dallas and Boston were different types of teams last year, with a little more depth, maybe, than us,” Brodeur said. “But with us losing Kovy and everything we needed to replace, plus injuries, it opened up a lot of space in the first two lines, and Jaromir has been there all the way.”
He added: “Good players need ice time. They need to be put in situations, and they’ll perform. If they’re not put in the situation, it’s harder, especially when you get older. But when you’re given that, and you’re embracing it, well, with Jaromir you see the result.”
Jagr’s place on the career scoring lists is impressive, yet he might be standing higher — behind only Wayne Gretzky and Howe — if he had not spent 2008-9 through 2010-11 with Avangard in the K.H.L.
Asked whether he regretted leaving the N.H.L. for three seasons, Jagr grew serious.
“I’m never going to look back and complain about whatever I did,” he said. “At that time I thought it was the right way to do it.”
Jagr continued: “Who knows if I’d be playing hockey right now if I didn’t go to Russia? I played less games there. I had a chance to see my parents; they’re getting pretty old, so I figured it’s the right thing to do.”
After a recent practice, Jagr lingered in the dressing room, empty except for three reporters and an equipment manager, to talk hockey. He said he was impressed with the Dallas rookie Valeri Nichushkin.
“He’s so fast and strong, great stick handler; he’s going to be a superstar,” Jagr said.
Asked if Nichushkin reminded him of anyone, Jagr said, “Me.”
He paused for laughter.