44-year-old Panthers forward says he’s ‘the best I ever felt’
SUNRISE, Fla. — It is hard to look away from the bright, the shiny, the new, the sparkling freshness of the latest crop of wunderkinds in the NHL. It is a generation dawning, a movement emerging so fast that at times it seems to have left the rest of the League behind. There they are, scoring four goals in an NHL debut, unleashing a shot reminiscent of Alex Ovechkin, snaking through and around and past defenders who suddenly morph from All-Stars to pylons.
They are next. They are now.
Yet, down in Florida, a relic remains.
There is so much past in him, in his birth, in Czechoslovakia, a country that no longer exists, in his famous hair now shot through with silver, in his spot on the all-time points list among players long since retired.
Of the top 10 goal-scorers in NHL history, nine are in the Hall of Fame: Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Brett Hull, Marcel Dionne, Phil Esposito, Mike Gartner, Mark Messier, Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux. Of the top 10 points leaders, nine are in the Hall of Fame. The exception, a right wing, sits third on each list, though he is likely to ascend to second in points this season, needing 10 to catch Messier.
That outlier status is one Jaromir Jagr has seemed to court throughout his career, a delicious novelty that worked for him, whether he was wearing a mullet, shilling peanut butter or shilling peanut butter while wearing a mullet.
He is here now, with the Florida Panthers, amidst the stars of the future, among teammates who grew up during the Jagr fever that gripped Pittsburgh in the 1990s, who had his poster on their walls, his jersey on their backs, who saw playing with him as a dream.
His linemate, Aleksander Barkov, born in Finland after Jagr had already won the Stanley Cup twice, was so enthralled with the idea of playing with his idol that he could not concentrate on the action for the entirety of the game after Jagr was traded to Florida — and Jagr wasn’t even in a Panthers uniform yet.
“That game didn’t go well,” Barkov said.
Jagr has defied time and aging and hockey and physics and many, many defensemen during the past 26 years. He has defied so much of what we expect from athletes, including a mindset, a retirement age, a way of thinking that the body breaks down and eventually takes away that which makes them special.
Sports are a constant reshuffling; the new coming in, the old going out, an endless yielding of the stage. But sometimes, somehow, someone doesn’t fit the narrative.
Sometimes the old isn’t done yet.
“When I was 10, he was already a star,” said 30-year-old Boston Bruins center David Krejci, who, like Jagr, is from the Czech Republic. “He was big. Now he’s still a star, so the 10-year-olds in Czech still look up to him. A whole new generation, but he’s still around.”
A new generation of hockey players. A new generation of fans. Jagr, who’ll turn 45 in February, endures.
The pounds slipped off, or so he says, making him the envy of the middle-aged set everywhere. It was not so much a conscious decision as a religious one. Or, at least, it started out that way.
Two years ago, Jagr gave up his beloved Diet Coke for Lent, and 40 days later, he couldn’t stomach it any longer. He never went back.
Coffee, laden with sugar and cream and caffeine, was harder to kick. His is a family of addicts, with Jagr estimating that his mother would drink 10 or 15 cups a day. He was much the same. But no longer. He is not young anymore, and there are restrictions that come with age, deprivations.
He could not continue whistling past the graveyard. He had to admit that the NHL was different, that the game and its players were changing around him. He did not need to be 240 pounds anymore, didn’t need the size and weight. He needed quickness instead, a way for his aging body to move faster and cleaner against the young, lithe 180 pounders that the NHL — and its general managers — are embracing.
He had always been big — “I had 13 pounds when I was born; my bones are naturally heavy,” Jagr said — but it was time to give up that sweet, milky coffee, give up the indulgences, the kind of decision that feels so universal at that age. He ate better, adding fish to his diet this summer.
He noticed differences, felt lighter, was lighter. This season, he is playing at 225 pounds.
“I’m kind of adjusting and, as I adjust, trying different things,” Jagr said. “I feel like I always had a talent and I never maximized it, always did enough to be good. Not more than that. But I always felt I always have an extra [level] when I need it. … I never really had to control my food, I never stretched in my life until this year.”
He still needs to learn to play at his new weight. He needs to adjust, to find his stride. Some fat was gone, but some muscle was too. His shot was altered slightly, his strength diminished. That, he believes, is returning. He just needs patience.
“Honestly, I feel the best I ever felt,” Jagr said. “I know it’s funny because the numbers are not there and everybody looks and sees struggle, but I wouldn’t change it. I still believe it’s going to turn around and I’m going to feel the best and play the best I’ve played in 15 years. I believe it. If not, I made a bad decision. But I believe I made a good decision.”
But he worries. He knows the recalibration is continuing, the results a factor of his new body, of the absence of injured linemate Jonathan Huberdeau, of some poor luck. He did not score in the final seven games of last season, including a six-game first-round loss to the New York Islanders in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He had one goal in the first 16 games this season.
“You have to understand that there is a time in everywhere, not only in hockey, any job, when you do everything that’s possible and the results are not there,” Jagr said. “But you cannot quit it. You cannot stop it. You have to go back again, because once you stop, especially when you’re old, nobody is going to give you a chance to come back again.
“When you’re older, you cannot make any mistakes. You make mistakes when you’re younger, you’re still going to get the opportunities. People give you a second chance, a third chance; ‘they’re young and they make mistakes.’ When you’re old, you don’t.”
Maybe it is that push back, against any hint of weakness, any sense of giving in, that leads Jagr to deny what everyone says. Or maybe it is that he has gone around them, circumvented their expectations and their watchful eyes.
They say he has adjusted his routine this season, skipping morning skates, spending fewer nights slipping into the building alone for his legendary workouts.
“Lately he hasn’t been doing the late-night workouts really anymore,” Panthers strength and conditioning coach Tommy Powers said. “I think he’s starting to realize that rest is a little bit more important.
“Unless he’s coming here when I don’t know about it. I don’t know. But he hasn’t been calling me too much late at night anymore. So I’m thankful. I’m getting a little more rest, too, these days.”
Incorrect, according to Jagr, who used to require Powers to be available at nearly all times for workouts. He would call him at 9 p.m., 10 p.m., on weekends, during off time, in hotels on the road, at family barbecues at home. But just because he doesn’t call, doesn’t mean anything.
“No, no,” Jagr said. “No, no, no. He just doesn’t know.”
So it’s behind his back?
“I think I do more than before,” Jagr said. “I just don’t bother [Powers] much.”
His coach has stopped coaching him, his strength trainer caters to his whims, his teammates marvel and sometimes follow his lead, adding the ankle weights and the weighted vests and the knowledge that they could never do it all.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Panthers coach Gerard Gallant said. “I mean, at that age, I don’t know how he gets up every morning, comes to the rink and does what he does. He’s almost 45 years of age and he doesn’t cheat. He does his workouts, he does everything the other players do and he comes to the rink and prepares himself. Freak of nature. I don’t know what it is.”
Even as Jagr rejects the advancing days, as he declines to think about them, he clings harder to the now. His fingernails are not on the ledge, not yet, and perhaps he will give in before that happens, perhaps he will know when his time is up.
He knows he must really be sure, in that case. He must be so sure. There must be no regrets.
Because he knows those players, the ones who have retired and six months later miss it so desperately that they would do anything to return. They become coaches, assistants, radio guys, general managers; they give their lives, their time, to dig their fingers in again. But then, it’s not like it was before, it’s not like playing.
“I guarantee you if they could change this part with me, they’d do it in a minute,” Jagr said.
He knows this. This game is life. And he cannot let it go until it starts to let him go, until the arms get too heavy to hang on any longer and the slipping starts.
“When you’re tired and you say, ‘I had enough,’ but after two months, one month you decided, ‘Oh, I’m missing it,’ there’s no way I can come back,” Jagr said. “It’s like a big truck. When you stop the big truck, it’s tough to start again.”
That is not yet. It is not now. He refuses that concept, repeats his desire to play until he is 50, makes others believe, makes himself believe. Because, unlike the rest of us, whose careers stretch on for a lifetime, there has to be an end for an athlete, doesn’t there? At some point?
He volleys the question back.
“So that’s what you would do?” he asks. “Once you reach your goal and it’s something that makes you happy. Let’s say you write an article and your goal is to be one day working for the NHL and so all of a sudden you reach the goal …”
He interrupts himself. He has thought of something better, something that makes the crow’s feet around his eyes crinkle and fold into themselves, something that makes the light burn brighter in his eyes.
“…Or your goal would be to make interview with Jaromir Jagr,” he says, grinning, a faux mullet wig hanging from his locker behind him. “Here we go. And so today you reach that point. So tomorrow you’re going to tell yourself, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore?’ Probably not. It’s the same thing.”
It isn’t, not really. The same skills aren’t involved, the same time elements don’t have the same effects. But that is the force of Jaromir Jagr, that for that moment — even if his point is pure fantasy — you wonder why anyone would ever give up anything so loved, voluntarily.
You wonder why the end has to come for anyone.
There remains incredulity in the face of Jagr, a lack of understanding of how he is still doing this, how time has managed to move on for everyone around him and yet stands still for him. He remains an enigma, the rare person who got old, moved to Florida and refused to retire.
“He still acts like a kid, and that’s not a disrespectful thing, that’s a compliment,” Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper said. “Like he’s a kid at heart. He has fun out there. You watch him in the pregame skates. So he may have a 4 by the start of his [age], but it looks like [he has] a 2.”
His development is arrested, with a philosophy that seems culled from the pages of J.M. Barrie. If you refuse to believe in your own aging, in your own deterioration, in your own end, perhaps there never really will be one. And so, day by day, shift by shift, he adds realism to the Peter Pan fantasy.
He won’t give in. He won’t grow up.
He is 44. He is 24. He is somewhere in between his body and his mind and the skills that haven’t yet forsaken him.
Someday, it will be over. He can’t think about that, though, any more than he’d like us to. Because to consider it is to begin the process. And for that, he’s not yet ready.
“It’s the power of the mind, so once you start thinking about it, it’s going to happen,” Jagr said. “So, no. It’s like insurance. Once you start thinking about insurance, you already admit it could happen. I’d rather to take the risk. I go all in. That’s my life. I’m all in.”