MINSK, Belarus - Jaromir Jagr would much rather be in the Stanley Cup playoffs than at the world hockey championship, especially three months removed from the Sochi Olympics.
"I thought the young guys from Czech Republic were going to play," Jagr said with a wry smile. "Obviously, they didn't. They took a break."
Jagr seemingly never takes a break from hockey and never stops smiling on the ice. At age 42 he's by far the oldest player in the tournament yet the ageless winger has as much fun playing now as he did as a young man.
"If it wouldn't be, I wouldn't be playing right now," Jagr said Sunday. "I want to have fun. As long as you have fun, everything is a lot easier. But you have to work hard, you have to love the game, and that's what you do."
Jagr, who faces Team Canada on Monday night, is still able to play at a high level because of a unique mix of love for the game, Hall of Fame skill and a tireless, quirky work ethic. Signed on for another season with the New Jersey Devils, Jagr doesn't sound like a man who's close to being ready to hang up his skates.
Even now after 1,473 NHL games, 1,755 points and two Stanley Cups, he finds new ways to motivate himself.
"It's a big challenge to compete with the young guys," Jagr said. "It's not only physically.
"You have to be one step ahead of everybody. They're going to be quicker, they're going to be stronger. But I always have to look for the edge. I always have to think a lot more. Anything I practise, everything I do, I have to think before how to do it. It's a big challenge. That's what I like about it — just outsmart somebody."
Long before Jagr had to outsmart anyone, he oozed the kind of skill that made him an all-star early on in his career. For a very brief time in 1992-'93, he was even linemates with Dave Tippett on the Pittsburgh Penguins.
"He was a very young guy," the 52-year-old Canadian coach said. "I think I spent a couple shifts on his line and he looked at Scotty Bowman and said, 'No, next, please.' "
At the world championships, Jagr is on a line with 20-year-old Tomas Hertl, who flashes the same grin on the ice for practice as his idol. Hertl wasn't even born for Jagr's two Cup victories in Pittsburgh, but as a very young boy growing up in Prague he watched every game of the 1998 Nagano Olympics.
Hertl could only dream of making it big like Jagr, let alone playing alongside him.
"It's unbelievable because it's my idol as small guy," Hertl said Saturday. "I'm learning. I watch too many games and YouTube and his shot is unbelievable, too many goals."
This past season, Jagr was New Jersey's scoring leader with 24 goals and 43 assists. The mutual comfort between Jagr and the Devils' organization led him to signing another one-year deal to return for 2014-'15.
"I'm not surprised. I think he really enjoyed the year," Devils coach and Team Canada assistant Peter DeBoer said. "I think he came in and he really is taking it year-to-year at this point in his career.
"He played a big role for us, felt important, was a big part of any of the successes we had during the year and I think he wants to do that again."
Jagr said this, his ninth world championship, would be his last — but don't rule out maybe one more run when it's in the Czech Republic next year. And certainly don't start the farewell tour thinking 2014-'15 is definitely his last go-'round in the NHL.
"I don't know." he said. "If I'm gonna play good, why? I love the game."
Jaroslav Spacek loved the game, too, but the defenceman's body gave out on him and caused him to retire in 2012. He's two years younger than Jagr but is now an assistant coach for the Czech team and still gets a kick out of seeing Jagr still playing.
"He's using all his free time to work out and get ready for the games," Spacek said. "He's got no family so he's putting all pressure on himself to be the best hockey player as he can be.
"That's the one thing he's working on it every day. He can get ready for the season even for the world championship, he can take a couple days off but then he comes and works hard. I never see anybody like that."
Infamous for skating late at night and sometimes with weights on his body, Jagr is what Tippett would classify as a "hockey junkie." Seeing up close how those things worked, DeBoer won't question any of his techniques.
"I marvel at him every day," he said. "He has some different thoughts on his own training and what makes him go. I can tell you there's very few guys, you can probably count on one hand, that are playing at a level that he's playing at at the age he's at."
To continue playing at that level, Jagr consciously makes decisions to maximize preparation. Beyond joking he's here because younger players weren't, he saw the world championships as a way to help him get ready for next season.
"For my body, my age, to have five months or four months without the ice I think would be too long and would be tough to come back and be ready right away," he said.
Jagr has to think about those things, but he doesn't feel like a 42-year-old. Being around Hertl and other young players helps him play down in age as he adjusts.
But at some point he won't be able to play anymore. When that time is right, Jagr expects to be able to feel it.
"You know," he said. "I think you know. I'm not ready yet."
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