Ales Hemsky describes Jaromir Jagr as a “funny, 45-year-old kid.”
So the Montreal Canadiens winger is not surprised at all that Jagr, a future Hall of Famer and one of the NHL’s all-time greats, has reportedly agreed to play at least one more season, this time with the Calgary Flames. It will be his ninth NHL team in a career that began as an 18-year-old with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990.
“He doesn’t feel 45 for sure,” Hemsky said Tuesday. “I guess everything he has is hockey.
“He’s got a girlfriend but he never got married so he never experienced that other side of it. Other guys have kids and a family and you don’t have free time for sleeping. He’s just focused on hockey.
“And he’s healthy too. That’s a big thing. He never had any major setbacks, so that’s another big reason why he’s still playing.”
While no one is shocked that Jagr is still in the NHL long after nearly anyone else would have retired, there remains a sense of awe at the longevity of the five-time league scoring champion.
After producing 16 goals and 30 assists in 82 games for the Florida Panthers last season, there was concern that the time had finally come when no team wanted him until, with two days left in the pre-season, he reportedly agreed to a one-year, US$1 million (plus bonuses), contract with Calgary.
He may not be as quick as he once was, but NHL players agree that he still has the size, the hands, the smarts and, more recently, the aura to be effective on the ice.
“It’s just the respect he has,” said Hemsky. “He can scare a lot of guys just because he’s Jagr.
“A lot of young kids will be like ‘Whoa, this guy’s unbelievable,’ so they’ll be scared to play hard against him.”
The numbers alone are scary.
Jagr is not just the NHL’s highest-scoring European player ever. The Kladno, Czech Republic native’s 1,914 points is second all-time to Wayne Gretzky. He is fourth all-time in games played (1,711), third in goals (765), fifth in assists (1,149) and first in overtime goals (19) and game-winning goals (135).
And his numbers would be higher had he not spent three seasons in the KHL from 2008-09 to 2011-12.
“He’s a big guy — a big presence for sure,” said Flames forward Michael Frolik. “His ass is massive.
“He can protect the puck really well. He can draw two guys to him and other guys can find free space. He’s great at power play and has a great release.”
He’ll surely be a role model for the Flames young talent, but being Jagr’s teammate can be a unique experience.
Montreal veteran Tomas Plekanec, sometimes Jagr’s linemate with the Czech national squad, confirmed that he does indeed sometimes head out late at night for extra skating.
“Yup, been there a couple of times,” said Plekanec. “It’s fun.
“It’s obviously different from 99 per cent of the players in the league, or in the world, but it’s special and it’s something that helps him.”
“I guess you guys heard he can be a little different,” added Frolik. “He’s got his own thing, but it’s been working for him for a long time.”
Jagr’s Czech compatriots say he is adored in his home country. Along with goalie Dominic Hasek, he played a part in winning gold at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the first with full NHL participation. He also won two IIHF world championships to go with a pair of Stanley Cups in his first two seasons with Pittsburgh.
More than one player offered that he is probably a bigger name in the Czech Republic than the country’s president Milos Zeman.
But it is not just Czech players who are impressed. Toronto Maple Leafs forward James van Riemsdyk, who played with Jagr on the 2011-12 Philadelphia Flyers, said his energy rubs off on everyone.
“First and foremost, it’s just how much he loves the game,” said van Riemsdyk. “When you have that much passion for it you’re always trying to adapt and be a better player.
“He has the desire even at that age to keep pushing and keep getting better. His longevity is almost as impressive as what kind of player he is. It’s one thing to be good, it’s another to play (27) years since his NHL debut.”
No one doubts he can still contribute on the ice, although not nearly at the scoring pace of his early years.
“His body size and his positioning down low is still second to none,” said Flames winger Kris Versteeg. ”He’s hard to get the puck off and his hockey sense is obviously through the roof.”