Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jaromir Jagr was a star then ... and he is again

By Larry Wigge

When Mario Lemieux talks, people listen.

To steal a line from the 1970s and '80s TV commercial for investors E.F. Hutton, no one, and I mean no one know more about hockey than Lemieux through the years.

"Probably the greatest goal I've ever seen," Lemieux explained, following the Game 1 Stanley Cup final between Pittsburgh and Chicago that the Penguins won 5-4 in overtime July 1, 1992.

But he wasn't talking about his overtime tally -- rather he wanted to talk about Jaromir Jagr's goal that sent the contest into overtime.

"He beat 3 or 4 guys with his balance, fakes and dekes ... and his one-on-one skills were off the charts."

The second-year pro from Kladno, Czechoslovakia, did indeed score singlehandedly, playing keep away from the Blackhawks in a thrilling Cup final. It seems like he had the puck for nearly two minutes wheeling around and through Chcoago players. First, Brent Sutter along the left wing boards. Then, faking Eric Weinrich down to the ice with another move and then he took on Igor Kravchuk, before backhanding a short past a diving Sutter and Ed Belfour.

"I remember that one," said Jagr. "I was lucky. Everybody ... missed me."

In the week that he turned 44-years-old, Jagr also scored goals No. 741 and 742 to pass Brett Hull for most -- behind Wayne Gretzky with 844 and Gordie Howe at 801.

The record-tying goal came in typical Jagr fashion -- he tapped his stick on the ice twice, then Dimitry Kulikov sent him a pass in the slot where he lofted it high over the Winnipeg goalie and into the net.

A timeless moment that is certain to stand up to the single-most breakthrough memory in all of playoff history.

At age 44 years and five days he's the oldest player in NHL history at the time he scored his 20th goal of a season, breaking a mark that had been held by Gordie Howe since 1970-71 when he scored his 20th goal at age 42 years, 324 days.

"There's no reason to quit. I love the game," said Jagr. "I'll tell you one thing, as long as I don't die, it's not my last year of playing hockey.

"I'll play until I cannot walk. I love the game too much to leave it."

Said teammate Roberto Luongo, "It feels like I'm still wearing diapers when I'm next to him."

Luongo is a spry 37. He went on to say,  "The way he prepares every day, the work he puts in off the ice ... it's amazing. Who knows how long he could still play? I think he can go for a while still."

Jagr wants to play at 50. Chris Chelios recently played until he was 48, and Howe played his last game at 52.

He's like a fullback shedding tacklers as he comes to the net. He's so big and strong ... and yet he's a master of deception. If you try to anticipate with him, you'll often guess wrong. And if you just try to react, he's too fast and you get beat.

“When he gets the puck, he has the reach,” New Jersey goaltender Cory Schneider said. "He just sticks his butt out and there is nothing you can do. It’s almost like a guy backing down in basketball. You can’t really defend that. You just hope that he turns it over or loses the puck."

Even players can't believe Jags is playing at the level he is. He's legendary. You hear stories about how if he is not liking his game he's there three hours afterward.

Honest to God. He packs three bags for each game -- weights and paraphernalia for working out.

"It's about the whole year spending with the guys," Jagr said. "It's about the game, you have to suffer everything to win it. It's not about the Cup. So if somebody comes to me right now and brings me the Cup. I'm not going to take it. You have to earn it."

Then he joked about and thought about the Cup, "It's big and heavy."

Jaromir Jagr won two Cups with Pittsburgh in his first two years 1991 and '92, he won five scoring titles and won the league MVP in 1999.

And he left the NHL for three seasons playing in the Kontinental Hockey League for Omsk. That was the old Jagr -- young and conflicted. He's come back and even is more hungry for the game.

Jaromir was the fifth overall pick in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft.

Still, he cherishes the 11 years with Pittsburgh, two plus season with Washington and three plus season with the New York Rangers.

Like the time when ... neighborhood kids would come to knock in Washington.

"They'd come up to the front door, ring the bell and ask my mother, 'Can Jaromir come out and play?'" Jagr recalled, laughing. "To me, life is a game. When I was a little kid, I always dreamed of being the best player at every game I played. I'm still working at it."

Jaromir and Anna, his mother, raised quite a child.

Stories about his earlier years -- the passion for fast cars were widespread. Teammates said Jagr knew every cop in town, that he easily had earned 180 or more tickets. He didn't know the language that well, so he would play scrabble to learn.

Jagr isn't just surviving ... he's thriving in today's NHL.

"I don't think it's any secret," Peter DeBoer, coach of the Devils in 2013-14, said. "What is he? Six four, 240 pounds? And skilled. And he sees the ice. He's got an elite hockey IQ on top of that. And he's a competitive guy. The puck's laying there, he's not looking to avoid a battle. He's willing to get in there and fight for position, fight for pucks. It's a nice package."

Said Boston's David Krejci, who played with Jagr in the 2010 Olmpics, "He was the best for a long time and he's still one of the best right now. It's good to see him still do well at his age. ... Yeah, I had posters of him when I was a kid. He was my hockey idol."

Jagr has signed one-year contracts for each of the past five seasons, including with the Panthers for the last two campaigns. He'll become an unrestricted free agent once again this summer.

Florida GM Dale Tallon describes the future Hall of Famer as a model for his young players and he definitely wants Jaromir back.

"Jaromir will let me know," said Tallon. "He's a proud guy and he knows what he wants. We don't have to worry about that ... yet. He'll come to me and say 'I want to stay here' or 'I want to talk about a new deal.' He'll let us know."

Laugh Jagr, "My plan is I have no plan. I believe if you really wanted to you could play until 60. It's up to you. If you feel old at 43 it's your problem, not mine."

It's all part of the mystique and beauty of Jagr.

I can remember talking with Sean Burke, Arizona's goaltending coach, about Jagr.

"I'll go to a basketball game and fix my attention on one player and just watch him move, with and without the ball," Burke told me. "It's similar in hockey -- when I'm in goal, I try to know where all the stars are so that I'm ready for them. Jagr is a guy who can be stopped for 58 minutes, but then turn a game around with one move, one shot, when his team needs it the most.

"But this isn't tennis or golf. This isn't Andre Agassi and Tiger Woods. Whether it's Jaromir Jagr or Brett Hull, they all have great individual skills that wouldn't mean diddly if they don't share, don't learn to mix those skills in with others in this sport."

Derek Settle, longtime Flyers strength and conditioning coach, remembers Jagr asking him for a key to Philadelphia practice facility. Same thing happened in Dallas and Florida.

"It's a big challenge to compete with the young guys," Jagr said. "It's not only physically.

"You have to be one step ahead of everybody. They're going to be quicker, they're going to be stronger. But I always have to look for the edge. I always have to think a lot more. Anything I practise, everything I do, I have to think before how to do it. It's a big challenge. That's what I like about it — just outsmart somebody."

Said teammate Willie Mitchell, "I think there's a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken there — it's like the movie Major League. He's got his quirks, ankle weights, weight vest, I don't know what else but he's been terrific for us. His love for the game rubs off on guys. What I didn't know prior to him coming here, he's a fun guy. He likes to have fun and likes to make jokes. He jokes around with guys and laughs, enjoys being around the rink."

"He's a physical beast, but that's not just good genes," acknowledged Tallon. "He'll call up our strength coach out of the blue at night on an off day -- after a morning practice, after dinner -- and Jaromir will tell him, 'Let’s go to the gym.'"

Jagr's dad had a farm, which was more than five miles from his home. So his dad took a bike, Jaromir ran, then they did work on the farm, then they’d go back. His weight room was in nature.

"When I was seven years old, I started doing squats," said Jagr. "I did 1,000 a day, every day. It just skyrocketed. For three to four years, I played with my age group and two years later I was playing with guys four years older than me and I was still better than them."

After practice he'll skate anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour with the weight vest. Sometimes, there were additional weights on his skates. Once in awhile, he'd run, but it was mostly on-ice stickhandling and shooting.

Jaromir Jagr playing when he's 50 ...

"He's a freak of nature," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said. "If he hadn't missed those three years or whatever it was, he'd be right up there behind Messier and Gretzky."

There’s no secret.

"Everybody knows the most powerful energy is love. And if you love something that makes it easy to do it," Jagr said. "Love for the game. Love for the work. Love for anything."

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