LOS ANGELES — Skating onto the ice for the Calgary Flames Wednesday night against the Los Angeles Kings, Jaromir Jagr officially began the latest chapter of his remarkable career. Joining a Calgary team with its sights set on a lengthy playoff run, it could be an exciting season for the Czech legend, who turns 46 in February and last hoisted the Stanley Cup in 1992.
In what could be his final NHL season, here is why we should care about Jagr’s return:
He could actually help Calgary: He might struggle to keep up with a young, speedy team during an era in which the league has gotten faster and faster. But Jagr could boost a team that needs to improve its puck possession. When it comes to securing the puck, few have done it better than Jagr. “His puck protection is pretty amazing. It’s second to none,” said linemate Kris Versteeg. “Obviously, he’s done what he has in this league and stayed around as long as he has because he can protect the puck better than anybody. That’s something we’re excited about.”
He can become the NHL’s all-time games leader: With 1,712 career NHL games, Jagr is fourth in league history, just 19 games behind Ron Francis. But with Mark Messier second, with 1,756, and Gordie Howe first, with 1,767, there’s no reason Jagr can’t lead the pack should he stay healthy and effective for the remainder of the season. He needs 56 more games to break Howe’s record.
But other records are safe: Jagr ranks among the greats in just about every statistical category, but don’t expect him to leapfrog too many players in those categories this season. He’s third, with 765 career goals, but second-ranked Howe should be out of reach at 801. Jagr is fifth, with 1,149 career assists, and has a shot at Ray Bourque, who is fourth, with 1,169. But Messier and his 1,193 assists are safe in third. Finally, Jagr is second with 1,914 career points (he was held off the scoresheet in his Flames debut and was minus-1 over 13:38 in ice time). It’s a remarkable achievement, but nowhere close to Wayne Gretzky’s career record of 2,857 points.
Plenty of Jagr’s teammates grew up idolizing him: An entire generation of hockey fans grew up watching Jagr play, so it’s no wonder that many of his new teammates have their own special memories of the Czech star. Versteeg recalled watching one game on TV as a child and seeing Jagr shoot the puck between his legs. Versteeg then went into the garage with his father and started practicing the move himself. The Jagr memories don’t end there in the Flames locker room. “Growing up, I had a Jaromir Jagr poster at the top of my roof in my cottage. It’s actually still there today,” said forward Sean Monahan. “It’s pretty crazy now to be playing with him.”
He kind of ended Wayne Gretzky’s career: In the Great One’s final game on April 18, 1999, the New York Rangers lost 2-1 in overtime to the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. The overtime winner that officially ended the final game of Gretzky’s career was scored by Jagr, who led the league that season with 83 assists and 127 points. In total, he won five Art Ross Trophies as top regular-season scorer.
A linemate wasn’t even close to being alive when Jagr was drafted: Jagr’s other linemate in Calgary, Sam Bennett, could be hard-pressed to share his favorite Jagr memory growing up. The 21-year-old Flames center was born almost exactly six years after Jagr was selected fifth overall by the Penguins in 1990. Bennett also wouldn’t have been able to watch Jagr in the NHL during some of his teenage years, as Jagr played three seasons in the KHL during that time.
He’s played a long time: The four players drafted above Jagr in 1990 have all been out of the league for a while: 1. Owen Nolan (last played in the NHL in 2010; retired in 2012); 2. Petr Nedved (last played in the NHL in 2007); 3. Keith Primeau (retired in 2006); 4. Mike Ricci (retired in 2007).
Witnessing the fitness could motivate: Jagr was skating in his native Czech Republic before agreeing to a one-year contract with the Flames. But despite missing training camp and easing his way into practice and game action, he has managed to impress his teammates with his skill and fitness level. “It’s pretty impressive. Since day one he’s looked really good to me,” said Versteeg. “I’m excited to see him a couple of weeks from now, when he really becomes comfortable and understands the systems. For now, he still looked great in practice. It’s been fun seeing how impressive he is and amazing he is with the puck.”
His Twitter account is infrequently updated gold:
Look, I just tell my cat, there is a chance to play in NHL this year. 😀😀😀 pic.twitter.com/8iBoTYeEl7
— Jaromir Jagr (@68Jagr) October 1, 2017
No, really, he’s played a long time: Much has been made of Jagr’s age and how long he’s been in the NHL. But nothing provides a greater historical perspective than pop culture: The top-grossing film in the United States the week Jagr was drafted in 1990 was “Dick Tracy,” starring Warren Beatty. The No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that week was “It Must Have Been Love,” by Roxette. The top-rated show on television that year was “Cheers.”
But he just wants to play: Playing for his sixth team in the past seven seasons, Jagr is clearly more concerned with playing where he’s wanted. He expressed as much when he met with the media before his game against the Kings.
“I take it as a challenge at my age to play with those guys. Of course, it’s not easy,” said Jagr. “That’s what I look at. Not what I did before. I don’t really care about what I did 20 years ago. ‘Show me what you can do for us now.’ That’s what it is.”
So what can he do for the Flames now?
“I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll find out.”