Second-leading scorer in NHL history comes from same hometown as Canadiens center
It was probably as a child in their mutual hometown of Kladno, Czech Republic, asking for an autograph. Or perhaps it was on one of the occasions when Jagr would return home and skate with HC Kladno, the local professional team, when Plekanec was first starting to play with men as a 16-year-old in 1998.
Regardless of when it was, it is clear Jagr has had a profound impact on the career of the longtime Montreal Canadiens center, who is in his 12th NHL season.
Whether it was playing center on Jagr’s line with the Czech Republic national team at the World Championship or Olympics, or some sound advice that was offered him when he most needed it, Plekanec has a unique perspective on Jagr’s latest accomplishment of passing Mark Messier to move into second place on the NHL’s all-time scoring list with 1,888 points. As impressive as the milestone is for Jagr, Plekanec says it will have little impact on his stature in their home country.
“He’s already big there, and I don’t think he can be any bigger than that,” Plekanec said. “It’s a huge accomplishment for him individually, it’s something that probably nobody will ever do again. But he can’t be any bigger than he is already.”
Plekanec is clear about one thing: He and Jagr are not particularly close. They don’t talk on the phone or hang out in Kladno, aside from skating together in the offseason. Plekanec, 34, is 10 years younger than Jagr, and the age gap has led to a relationship that is more professional than personal.
But that relationship is special all the same
Plekanec and Jagr have played together at four international tournaments, the 2009 and 2015 IIHF World Championships and the 2010 and 2014 Olympics. They played on the same line at each one.
Plekanec says the incredible skill set that has made Jagr one of the greatest players of all time also posed challenges to him as a linemate, particularly in a short tournament.
“It’s easy and it’s hard,” Plekanec said of playing with Jagr. “He’s the best player in the world, most talented player. He’s thinking three steps ahead. You try to think one step, two steps ahead; he thinks three, four steps ahead. He sees the plays you’ve probably never seen before, and you try to keep up with him.
“But I felt good playing with him. We had good chemistry.”
There is a side of Jagr that not too many people have been privy to, a side that helped Plekanec immensely at a time of need.
Plekanec had a breakthrough season in 2007-08, his third in the NHL, with 69 points in 81 games. At age 25, he looked to be on the verge of great things. But the following season was a nightmare for Plekanec, the worst of his career with 39 points in 80 games.
Plekanec went home to Kladno after the 2008-09 season feeling a bit lost, but he was given guidance by Jagr that changed the course of his career.
“I would listen to anyone at that time who would try to help me out, and he did. He definitely did,” Plekanec said. “When I said he thinks three or four steps ahead; the sports psychology and training your mind, he was there 15 years ago, 20 years ago. People now in Czech [Republic], they’re still not there and they’re trying to get there right now, but he was there 15 years ago. He told me about it back then, when I needed it, and it helped me big time.”
This is not something Jagr was known to do at the time, reaching out to help a fellow Czech player who was going through hard times. They had never played together internationally at the time and had a limited relationship, but to get career advice from someone of Jagr’s stature carried perhaps more weight than the actual advice itself.
The following season Plekanec had an NHL career-high 70 points in 82 games.
“I don’t know which way I would go if I didn’t talk to him or use the stuff that he told me,” Plekanec said. “Maybe I would have found out about it later on and be a different player. Would I bounce back by myself doing what I’ve always done? I don’t know. But at the time when you talk to a legend like that and you’re young, you talk to a guy like that who won a Stanley Cup, who played in the NHL for so many years, that’s already a boost for a player. It doesn’t matter what he says.
“Now he’s a lot more open, he talks to the younger guys a lot. But back when he talked to me, he wasn’t that open to anybody. That’s why it was even more special for me at the time.”
That’s also why watching this legend from his hometown become the second-leading scorer of all time is a bit more special for Plekanec than it is for others.