"It's supposed to be fun, the man says 'Play Ball' not 'Work Ball' you know." - Willie Stargell
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
Panthers’ ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr is a player beyond comparison
TORONTO — The Globe and Mail
Florida Panthers winger Jaromir Jagr celebrates after scoring his 742nd career NHL goal against the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 20. Jagr moved into third place on the league’s all-time scoring list. (Robert Mayer/USA Today Sports)
The trouble with putting Jaromir Jagr and what he is doing these days into context is you’ll never find a context where he will fit.
He is a one-off: A 44-year-old, 230-pound winger in a league in which everyone is getting younger, smaller and faster as the game continues to evolve into a version of pinball on ice.
He is on pace for a 28-goal, 61-point season at an age when no player in league history has hit 20 goals or 45 points.
He leads the Florida Panthers – the fifth-best team in the NHL – in goals and points and will make more than $5-million (U.S.) as he hits almost all of his performance bonuses with ease.
He isn’t just piling up easy points on the power play either. Entering Sunday’s games, Jagr was tied for 12th in the entire NHL in even-strength points. Tied with Alex Ovechkin. One behind Sidney Crosby. One ahead of John Tavares.
None of it makes any sense.
Jagr tied and then passed Brett Hull for third spot in the NHL’s career goal scoring pantheon on Saturday, with his 741st and 742nd goals the driving force in Florida’s 3-1 win over Winnipeg.
His first goal was a beautiful redirection from the slot, as Jagr trailed the play through the neutral zone and drifted in late.
On the second, he won a puck battle with Tyler Myers – a 6-foot-8 defenceman who is 18 years his junior – and swatted it quickly over the goaltender.
“It’s unbelievable,” Jagr’s coach, Gerard Gallant, said afterward.
“You give a great player too much room, he’s going to hurt you bad,” Jets coach Paul Maurice lamented.
Jagr’s 742 goals put him 59 from Gordie Howe in second place and 152 from Wayne Gretzky’s record of 894. Passing Howe is certainly possible, with Jagr showing no signs of slowing down or interest in retirement, despite facing those questions every few weeks.
“There’s no reason to quit,” Jagr said. “I love the game. If I can play in the NHL, why not keep going?”
Jagr’s longevity has been all the more impressive because of his durability. He has missed only eight games the past three seasons and scored at a 23-goal pace per 82 games. If he plays another two years, Howe’s 801 could be within reach by the end of the 2017-18 season, when Jagr is 46 years old.
If he plays another three years, getting there is a given.
A select few other NHLers such as Howe, Mark Messier and Chris Chelios have played in the NHL into their mid-40s, but what separates Jagr is he remains a top-line talent playing 17 minutes a game on a top-end team. His off-ice workouts have become the tale of legend – shooting medicine balls with his stick and wearing 45-pound weight vests – and he has been known to have his own key to the rink so that he can skate and work out hours after games.
Jagr needs a new contract for next season, but he has likely stopped bouncing from team to team as a free-agent mercenary. He has been a dream linemate and teacher for the Panthers burgeoning stars Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau and found a home as a huge fan favourite in South Florida.
With Panthers attendance up 3,600 fans a game – by far the biggest year-to-year increase in the NHL – it’s a certainty ownership makes a push to bring Jagr back, perhaps even on a multiyear deal this time.
He has obvious fans on high in the organization. Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu tells the story of how his 13-year-old son Danny went down to meet Jagr after the first game of the season. Danny and a friend were both wearing mullet wigs in homage to Jagr’s trademark hairstyle from his heyday, and the star was impressed.
Jagr grabbed an extra mullet wig they had and posed for a picture with the boys. Ever since, that mullet has been hanging in his dressing room stall as a good-luck charm.
“Such a good guy,” Cifu said.
It wasn’t always this way for Jagr. He wasn’t always lauded for his work ethic and popular with owners, coaches and fans. But he is the first to admit he has changed with age and that the three years he spent playing in Russia, closer to his family in the Czech Republic, rekindled something in him.
It’s natural to wonder, had he stayed in the NHL those years, if perhaps Jagr would be chasing down Gretzky right now, instead of Howe.
But had he stayed, perhaps he wouldn’t have continued to play this long and this well?
“When I got the birthday cake for 44th birthday, you get the wish,” Jagr said on Saturday. “I said ‘I wish I’m going to be a goal scorer.’ So, so far it worked. Maybe I’m going to catch Gordie and maybe Wayne Gretzky, too.”