PRAGUE — Nine weeks ago, Jaromir Jagr looked like a second-rate forward of an average NHL team. He played on the third line of the New Jersey Devils, went scoreless for eight games in a row and seemed to lose his motivation on the ice.
Nowadays, the Florida Panthers veteran is proving he’s still one of the biggest stars on the world stage. The star wing scored a goal in each of his first two appearances for the Czech Republic at the 2015 IIHF World Championship in Prague and seems to be in top form heading into a highly anticipated game Monday against Canada.
In the first two games against Sweden and Latvia, Jagr was one of the best players on the ice. There were moments when he skated past defensemen who were 20 years younger. He created a lot of chances for himself and his teammates, including a highlight-reel run where he split three Swedish players only to be stopped by goaltender Jhonas Enroth.
At the age of 43, Jagr became the oldest player ever to score at the World Championship.
“I didn’t even notice that. I don’t look at the Jumbotron and I don’t read the newspapers,” he said. “It’s not just about me. It’s about the Czech Republic, Czech hockey. Since the very first moment when they started selling tickets here, it was clear that this tournament was going to be something special. The Czechs love hockey and everyone feels like a coach. We’ve got 10 million coaches here.”
Jagr flourished at the end of regular season after a trade from New Jersey on Feb 26. He scored five goals and 14 points in 18 games with the Panthers after having 11 goals and 29 points in 57 games with the Devils. After the season, he signed a one-year contract with the Panthers, ensuring he’ll be in the NHL at least until he’s 44.
“In Florida, I found new desire to play,” he told reporters in Prague. “It’s all about having the opportunity to play. Hockey is not just about one player, it’s about the entire team. Or at least about the five guys you’re on the ice with.”
Jagr found a home with the Panthers on a line with talented young players Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, who joined Finland at the World Championship. The Finns were placed in Group B in Ostrava and the earliest they can play Jagr’s Czechs is in the quarterfinals.
The Czechs have four points after they lost to Sweden 6-5 in a shootout Friday and won 4-2 against Latvia on Saturday.
“We were a bit nervous at the start of the tournament. Even me, and I’ve been playing professional hockey for almost 30 years,” Jagr said. “We’re at home, fans are going crazy. I think they see us in much better light than where we really are. The competition is tough at the Worlds and there are other title contenders here. But it’s all going to be about that one (quarterfinal) game.”
After a day off, the Czechs face Canada on home ice in what’s expected to be the most attractive game of the preliminary round. The Canadians showed their firepower by beating Latvia 6-1 on Friday and Germany 10-0 on Sunday. Taylor Hall (Edmonton Oilers) had a hat trick and Matt Duchene (Colorado Avalanche) had a goal and three assists in the game against Germany.
Canada is full of NHL stars, led by captain Sidney Crosby (Pittsburgh Penguins), other top forwards like Claude Giroux (Philadelphia Flyers), the Dallas Stars tandem of Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza, and Nathan MacKinnon (Colorado Avalanche), defensemen Brent Burns (San Jose Sharks), Dan Hamhuis (Vancouver Canucks) and Aaron Ekblad (Florida) and goalie Mike Smith (Arizona Coyotes).
“That’s going to be a really tough test, strong opponent,” Jagr said. “Canada has an All-Star Team here, they could have barely picked up a better group. It’s one of the best Canadian squads I ever saw at Worlds. The game’s going to be really huge and important.”
The Czechs have some offensive strength as well. They are led by Flyers wing Jakub Voracek as captain and there are seven NHL players on their roster including goalie Ondrej Pavelec (Winnipeg Jets), defenseman Jan Hejda (Avalanche) and forward Tomas Hertl (Sharks). Voracek is the first-line right wing, a spot which for the last 20 years was always reserved for Jagr.
“That’s how it’s supposed to be,” Jagr said. “Jake is our most important guy. And I’m sure I’ll have my chances as well.”