Fun and games

Older and wiser, Jaromir Jagr is having more fun than everyone else

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Jaromir Jagr on trying something new: “I realize, if I start something else, first of all, you’re not going to be good at it. You don’t know what you’re doing. You’ll have to learn from the bottom. So, for me, it’s going to be a lot tougher than to keep playing hockey. I might as well keep playing.”

* * *

You can see how much he loves this game. The man is in his 40s now, and he’s seen everything in the sport. He has taken all the hits, delivered even more. He has endured the losses. He sipped from Lord Stanley’s Cup. Now, he steps on the ice for a nothing practice, an off-day morning skate at the Florida Panthers IceDen in sunny Coral Springs. Kids practice axels and spins on the ice rink next door. A few fans step up to the glass to get a better look. The man acts like it is Game 7.

It is mesmerizing to see; everything in the man’s body comes alive. He is practically jumping on the ice as practice begins. Let’s go! He’s old enough to be a father to some of these guys, an older big brother to the rest, but he’s still the most enthusiastic of the bunch. He makes the crispest passes. He semi-playfully checks guys into the boards between drills. Come on! He flips a sweet pass over the goalie’s stick and then watches in horror as one of the kids whiffs. “Are you kidding me?” he shouts happily. His joy radiates at such high voltage that you can’t help but wonder if the ice melts underneath him.

“How do you maintain that sort of passion for hockey after all these years?” you ask him after the practice ends because that seems the only question. He shrugs.

“I just love it,” he says. “I love being out there more than anything. I’m like everyone else. I wanted to play forever.”

Then John Madden shrugs. Yes, they all want to play forever. But they cannot. John Madden had to stop four years ago; that’s why he coaches now. Madden was a glorious grinder in his day, a defensive forward for those impenetrable New Jersey teams. He played with particular fury against the power play. Madden led the league in short-handed goals one year and, ask anybody, if he had been a more potent finisher, he would have led the league in short-handed goals every year. Nobody counterattacked with quite the same ferocity.

He would love more than anything to still be playing. He will, on occasion, remind the Panthers that at age 42, he’s still available if a roster spot opens. Everyone laughs when he says that. It is a timeless joke. Everybody wants to play forever. Nobody can.

Well … almost nobody.

“What Jags is doing,” Madden says as he fumbles around for the right word.

“Amazing?” you ask, and Madden shakes his head.

“Astonishing,” he finally says.

* * *

This is the hardest part to understand about Jaromir Jagr’s amazing, no, astonishing play as a 44-year-old: It is all about fun. It always was. That, Jagr tells you, is the part that everybody misses about him. Over the years, people have loved him and loathed him, celebrated him and booed him, mocked his hair style and tried to copy it, but they never quite understood. It was about fun. And now it’s fun.

Sure, people will point to the numbers. Jagr, at 44, leads the second-place Panthers in points. Nothing like that has ever happened before. His 53 points are the most ever for a player his age and the season isn’t over yet. More to the point, Jagr keeps passing legends on the all-time charts. Just this season:

— He passed Larry Murphy for eighth place in NHL games played. If you add his 155 games played in the Kontinental Hockey League, he has played more hockey games than anyone except Gordie Howe.

— He passed Brett Hull and is now third in goals scored behind Howe and Wayne Gretzky.

— He passed Howe in points, and is now third behind Mark Messier and Gretzky.

When you ask him about such achievements, his eyes glaze. Yes, of course, it is an honor to be mentioned with such all-time greats. Numbers don’t seem to interest him. When you ask him about the sheer absurdity of it all — Jagr is the first 44-year-old NHLer to score his age — his jaw tightens and he quickly spits out a few self-deprecating lines about the greatness of his teammates making him look good.

But when you ask Jagr about how much fun he is having, that’s when he lights up and asks you to sit down next to him.

“This is the most fun I’ve ever had,” he says.

“Even compared to the early years?” you ask.

He looks at you like you’re crazy. “Yes,” he said. “It is much more fun now.”

* * *

Jaromir Jagr on retirement:”You just cannot sit. People say, ‘Oh, you make money. You’re just going to sit and do nothing.’ It doesn’t work, trust me. You would get fat. You would get bored. It might work for two months, but not for years.”

* * *

When Jagr was a kid in Pittsburgh, playing with Mario Lemieux and the boys, they thought he was different. Well, he WAS different. He was an 18-year-old kid from Kladno, Czechoslovakia who grew up dreaming of playing hockey in the United States (he used to keep a photo of Ronald Reagan in his school notebook) and who insisted on wearing No. 68 to commemorate the year of the Prague Spring.

But he was different too in how hard he worked. He did all sorts of insane exercises, and he had this exact idea about how much sleep he needed and what kind of food he should eat. You couldn’t get him off the ice at the end of practice. His old coach Pierre McGuire remembers Jags running the arena stairs back before that became a thing, back when everybody thought it was nuts.

“I did all that so that the GAMES would be fun,” Jagr says. “I didn’t want to have to think or worry about anything during games. I wanted to play free.”

Did he play free? Jagr shrugs. There were All-Star games and playoff heroics and a couple of Stanley Cups by the time he turned 20. He scored some of the most glorious goals of the last half century, mind-blowing goals where he powered through two and three players — you couldn’t take the puck away from Jagr then, you still can’t take it away now — and beat goaltenders by waiting for them to flinch. His whirlwind force so perfectly blended with the artistry of Lemieux (Jagr’s idol since he was six) that people could not help notice that Jaromir is an anagram for “Mario Jr.”

After Lemieux retired the first time, Jagr took his place as hockey’s king, winning four scoring titles and a Hart Trophy and a place in the Pittsburgh sports skyline.

“There are probably four ways to play Jagr,” three-time Canadian Olympic coach Dave King said at the time. “All of them wrong.”

“When I’m feeling good,” Jagr told Sports Illustrated, “I can do anything on the ice I want.”

But, Jagr found out something he did not expect: He didn’t feel good all that often. It wasn’t fun being the king. “The pressure” he says now. “The pressure of being the best player on the team. It’s no good. … You can never relax. You can never enjoy anything.” The fans expected him to be a star every night. His teammates expected him to be a star every night. Opponents played him with ferocity every night because he was the star.

“I sometimes tell the guys on the third line, ‘You guys have it made,'” Jagr says now. “I wish I had been a third-line player. You can play, no pressure, you score your goals, and it’s good. Nobody expects anything. Everybody’s happy when you score a goal. Nobody asks ‘Why didn’t you score two?'”

Nobody could miss Jagr’s unhappiness. The thrill was gone on the ice, so he looked for thrills elsewhere. He picked up so many speeding tickets that his license was suspended (nobody seems to know exactly how many tickets he mindlessly jammed into his glove box, but it is apparently a legendary figure). He gambled heroically (and according to a 2007 book, very poorly). He partied. He often acted sullen with teammates and fans and the press.

His lack of hockey passion in those final years in Pittsburgh was both obvious and baffling to everyone around him. He still played amazing hockey. Lemieux came out of retirement, and together they carried the Penguins to the conference finals. Jags again led the NHL in points, scoring 52 goals and adding a league-leading 69 assists. But he played without zeal. He never smiled. His hockey life had turned into a seemingly endless stretch of Mondays.

“He’s a great player, he’s making $10 million a year,” Lemieux said. “This has to be the best time of his life, and I’m not so sure he realizes that.”

“I’m dying alive,” Jagr admitted.

Jagr essentially forced a trade in 2001 out of Pittsburgh to Washington in the hopes that a new start would rekindle his joy for the sport. The opposite happened. The pressure Jagr hoped to escape escalated. In Pittsburgh, he had been the black sheep trying to live up to the greatness of Mario, but in Washington, he was merely a highly paid mercenary expected to carry Washington to unprecedented heights. The boos were fierce. The Capitals were not a good team. They seemed to have no real plan other than to let Jagr carry them. Jagr played as if in a funk. “Coach killer,” one Capitals coach, Bruce Cassidy, called Jags after being axed.

It was better in New York, at least for a while. Jagr was traded to the Rangers in 2004, just as the league was tightening some rules to make it a bit easier for him to move around. He scored 50 goals again as a 33-year-old. He led the Rangers to their first Stanley Cup playoffs appearance in about a decade. He became something of a New York star for a couple of years.

“Forgive my little reservations on this thing,” then-Islanders GM Mike Millbury told Sports Illustrated after Jagr had a renaissance season at age 33. “I have colleagues in this business who could have looked a lot better and slept a lot better at night if their star player had shown up for work on time and worked for 60 minutes, which he didn’t because he wasn’t feeling the love.”

Millbury wasn’t exactly wrong, Jagr says, but he used the wrong word. He used “love.” Jagr says love was not what he craved. Fun. He wanted hockey to be fun again, the way it was when he was young and in his hometown of Kladno, when it all seemed a hopeful dream. He could not figure out how to make that happen. At 35 years old, he was insulted by the tepid offers he got around the NHL and so he went to Russia to play in the KHL. His Hall of Fame NHL career seemed over.

“So much pressure,” he says.

***

Jaromir Jagr on the challenges of playing at 44: “That hardest thing is you can’t stop. If you stop for one day, OK, you better be back out there practicing the next. Any time you stop for two or three days, it’s going to be very, very hard. I compare it to a truck, a big-loaded truck. If it’s going, it’s no problem to go. But when it stops, it’s very tough to start again. You need a lot more power to start it up again.”

***

On October 13, 2008, Jagr was sitting on the bench in Podolsk, a city just outside of Moscow, and he was sitting next to a brilliant 19-year-old player named Alexei Cherepanov — a first-round pick of the Rangers. With just a couple of minutes left in the game, Jagr saw Cherepanov collapse, and he began screaming for help. The medics arrived but struggled to revive Cherepanov. They finally took Cherepanov to the hospital. The game went on.

When the game ended, Jagr heard that Cherepanov was in critical condition. He and a teammate rushed to a church to pray for him. But it was too late. Cherepanov died; his cause of death remains both mysterious and contentious. “They said they couldn’t make him alive,” Jagr told reporters a couple of years ago on one of the rare days he would talk publicly about it.

“He loved that kid,” one of Jagr’s close friends says. “I know he thinks about that moment every single day.”

“I think Alexei’s death had a huge effect on Jags,” says another friend. “I don’t think Jags ever took hockey for granted. But after that, I think he started to realize that he wanted to play hockey for as long as he could.”

Jagr does not talk about it. He does not deny, though, that that his three years in the KHL changed him dramatically. There was a lot of skepticism when he announced that he wanted to come back to play in the NHL at age 39. He ended up signing with the Philadelphia Flyers, and his one demand was that they give him a key to the practice facility so that he could skate and practice whenever the mood struck him, even if it was one in the morning.

“Practice,” he told reporters upon his return, “is really fun.”

There’s that word.

* * *

Jaromir Jagr on hockey and fun: “It wasn’t so fun when I was young. When I came back, there was no pressure to be the guy. Who am I? I’m just some old guy.”

* * *

Jussi Jokinen is no kid. He’s 32 years old now, and he’s in his 11th hockey season. He has been traded three times, played for five different NHL teams. He has 500 career points, a couple of Olympic medals, a few game-winning playoff goals. It has been a sturdy career.

Jokinen feels like a kid again when he plays with Jagr.

“It would be ridiculous to think that I would be playing with him NOW, at this point in my life,” Jokinen says. He grew up idolizing Jagr. There were plenty of Finnish players for him to revere, but there was something different about Jagr, the relentless way he pushed through defenses, the force of will he displayed as defenders grabbed him and pulled him, the impossible maneuvers he made to get clear.

“I wanted to be just like him,” Jokinen says. And, he admits, watching Jagr now playing with such joy and energy, yes, of course it makes him feel young himself. He has a chance, with a big finish, to have the highest-scoring season of his career. He has by far the best plus/minus rating of his career.

“Everything everybody says about him now is true,” Jokinen says. “He’s so passionate about the game. Of course, he is not as fast as he once was but he knows better than anyone where to be on the ice. And he works so hard. Everybody knows about how hard he works, but we see it every day.”

Yes, Jagr’s relentless practice and strength training — “If I don’t work, I will pay,” Jagr says — has been talked about at length. But Jokinen says there’s something else that doesn’t get talked about as much: Jagr is a genius at adjusting his game to the times. When he started, the game was much more wide open. He scored at will.

Then, after a while, because of trap defenses and constant holding, it became suffocating for scorers. (“He said the other day he’d have 800 goals if it wasn’t for us in Jersey,” John Madden says proudly). He was still so strong and had such great puck control that he found ways to score.

Now, Jagr and Jokinen both say, the key is getting off the shot fast. There’s less time than ever for scorers, and goaltenders have higher save percentages than before.

“You can’t wait out the goalie like before,” Jagr says. “It used to be the way to score goals was to wait the longest. Now, you cannot wait. I shoot the puck fast now. I don’t even look at the net. I know where it is. And I just shoot.

“People say to me, ‘How did you know to put the puck there?’ Are you kidding? I have no idea where the puck is going. I’m just shooting at the net as fast as I can. I think, ‘If I don’t know where it’s going, how will the goalie know?'”

* * *

Jagr on the end: “I don’t think about it. Ever.”

* * *

John Madden will sometimes sit on the bench, watch Jagr play and remember. “Back in the heyday for us in Jersey,” he says, “(Ken) Daneyko and I and Scotty Stevens and all the guys used to check him. We’d come out of Pittsburgh being only minus-one, and we were high-fiving each other. We were like, ‘That’s a successful night.’ We couldn’t stop him. Nobody could stop him.

“And he’s still doing it. It’s mind-boggling, right? I never played like him, never had the ability to play like him and never will, so it’s hard for me to understand.You’re like, ‘This is nuts.'”

Madden loves hockey with all his heart. But he happily will concede: Jagr loves the sport more. Maybe it’s because of those turbulent early years. Maybe it’s because of those years he spent away.

Maybe it’s because he finally found his balance and rhythm. There is a funny Jagr story from this season that everyone knows, and it perhaps best explains Jagr’s state of mind best. He slept with an 18-year-old model, and she took a selfie of them in bed together and threatened to release the photo if he didn’t pay her some money.

Jagr said three words: “I don’t care.”

“How is he doing it?” you ask Madden.

“I wish I knew,” he says. “I guess Jags is having more fun than the rest of us.”