NASHVILLE — Florida Panthers forward Jaromir Jagr can relate to John Scott.
Jagr played in his first NHL All-Star Game in 1992, when he was voted in by the fans at age 19 to start at forward for the Wales Conference alongside Pittsburgh Penguins teammates Mario Lemieux and Kevin Stevens.
However, back in Pittsburgh, Jagr, who was on the fourth line, almost never played with Lemieux that season.
So getting to start in the All-Star Game felt a bit strange for Jagr back then. Scott, who has five career goals, was voted by the fans to be captain of the Pacific Division team.
“I was kind of like John Scott back then,” Jagr said with a big laugh at the NHL All-Star Weekend media day Friday. “I was playing on the third or fourth line on the Pittsburgh Penguins because we had so many great players, and the fans voted me in. I felt kind of embarrassed. I was ashamed. I didn’t want to come. I came here, I was 19, I saw all the superstars and I was in the starting lineup and I was on the fourth line in Pittsburgh. It was kind of strange. I didn’t really like that feeling.”
Jagr, now two weeks from his 44th birthday, was voted in by the fans again 24 years later to play in the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday (5 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports). He is second on the Panthers in scoring with 33 points in 46 games, and is a big reason Florida entered the All-Star break in first place in the Atlantic Division.
Beyond the points and whatever he does on the ice, Jagr contributes to a young Panthers roster in countless other ways. He pointed out the combined age of his linemates, Jonathan Huberdeau (22) and Aleksander Barkov (20), is lower than Jagr’s, which is what makes his work ethic and ability to prepare off the ice that much more impactful on the young Panthers stars as they begin their careers.
“I think it’s inspiring,” said 19-year-old Panthers defenseman and fellow All-Star Aaron Ekblad. “It’s inspiring for a guy like me to want to play 25 years in the League, but it’s inspiring for a guy that’s played 15-20 [years] to want to play a couple more and to work harder so they have the opportunity to continue to play.
“You hear that from a guy like [defensemen] Willie Mitchell or Brian Campbell. I mean, they take care of themselves, but they’re doing that extra little bit more because they have the aspiration to be like [Jagr]. We all kind of feel that way.”
There’s also the added benefit for the older Panthers that Jagr makes them feel younger than they are.
“It feels like I’m still wearing diapers when I’m next to him,” said Panthers goaltender Roberto Luongo, who will be 37 in April.
Jagr provided a perfect example of what Ekblad was talking about. During the All-Star voting process, Jagr said that at his age he would prefer not to play in the All-Star Game, saying the new extended 3-on-3 format would be tough on him. Everyone assumed that he would rather be resting up for the second half of the season and the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
No, Jagr actually wanted to be doing the exact opposite.
“I was planning to work a little bit harder, because during the hockey season you don’t really have much time to practice,” Jagr said. “So I was hoping in these 10 days I was hoping to do a lot more to get better on the ice and to get stronger. I didn’t have a chance, but that’s OK. I’m not complaining.”
Aside from his work ethic, Jagr can inspire with his desire.
He was a member of Stanley Cup-winning teams in his first two NHL seasons in 1991 and 1992, but when asked if that is what drives him at this age to continue working as hard as he does, Jagr’s response sounded surprising at first.
“It’s not about the Cup,” Jagr began.
The explanation that followed, however, provided much more insight.
“[Coach] Peter Laviolette, when I was in [Philadelphia], and I remember that line, it was perfect,” Jagr continued. “Before the first game in Pittsburgh, I think it was after the first period and we were losing 3-0. We won that game, but he came to the dressing room and said, ‘Guys, if I would bring the Cup right now in the dressing room and somebody told me you don’t have to play any more games and you win it, would you take it?’
“I guarantee nobody would say yes because it’s not about the Cup; it’s about the whole year spending [time] with the guys, it’s about the games, you have to suffer everything to win it. It’s not about the Cup. So if somebody came up to me right now and brought me the Cup, I’m not going to take it. You have to earn it.”
Jagr has a chance to earn it this season; the Panthers are one of the NHL’s surprise stories this season. Along the way, Jagr will have opportunities to reach some significant personal milestones. He has 737 goals and is four behind Brett Hull for third place on the all-time list.
Jagr was asked if there was any one record he holds most dear to his heart, and he stopped to think about it. Then he thought about it some more.
It was worth the time, because the answer he came up with might be the best way to describe Jaromir Jagr in 2016.
“Just to play at my age is a big challenge every day,” he said. “Just to play and somehow be helpful for the team, that’s my record.”
It is a record Jagr sets every day. The Panthers, the NHL and their fans couldn’t be more grateful for it.