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Veteran hits ice for first time with teammates but no timetable for game debut

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Doesn't sound as if a fresh take on the already-spoken-for 3M line tag is in the offing anytime soon.

M, in this case, standing for mullet.

"You need a pretty special guy to make that look work,'' joked Kris Versteeg. "(Jaromir Jagr)'s probably the only one who could pull it off.

"Maybe Patrick Kane in the playoffs. Brandon Saad. But just a handful of guys.

"Don't think I'm one of them.

"Besides, it'd take a while for me to grow one. I did have one back in the day. More like a skullet. It was a heckuva haircut.

"That was Lethbridge days, back in pre-novice hockey. I was probably in kindergarten or Grade 1.

"I wondered why a lot of people didn't like me. That was probably the reason.

"So, no, I don't think that's quite the look for me. Not sure it'd be for Sam, either."

Sitting next door in the Flames' dressing room, Sam Bennett recoiled at the idea.

"Not. A. Chance,'' he protested, acting as if it'd be the height of presumptuousness. "That's Jaromir's trademark."

The first official sighting/practice of a legend helped lighten the mood of a killer 45-minute practice Thursday in the wake of the previous night's curtain-raising 3-0 loss to the Edmonton Oilers.

As anticipated, 45-year-old Jagr slotted in at right wing on the Flames' third line, partnering with 21-year-old Bennett and wily vet Versteeg.

Video: Jagr recaps his first practice with the Flames

"Not very good,'' replied Jagr, asked how he thought Day One had gone. "It was a fast pace. Like I said yesterday, it's not going to be easy for me. It's a challenge. 

"It's different for me, and my linemates. When you get traded, (usually) you get some games before. You're in game shape. I cannot say that about myself right now.

"This might take time.

"We go day-by-day. We have to be smart about it. If I'm not gonna be ready, it's not very smart to put me out there."

There was good-natured talk of Jagr receiving a set of keys to the Scotiabank Saddledome, if he ever felt the urge to rush down and do a little twilight conditioning at his convenience.

"I don't need it tonight,'' he smiled. "Trust me."

At least the ice with his new teammates, latest linemates, was broken Thursday. Everything becomes easier after that.

"There's going to be a feeling-out process,'' said Versteeg. "He's gotta learn the systems and the way to play within them. He's such a smart player, played a long time so I think he'll find his way fast.

"But I'm sure he wants to feel comfortable."

Hard to believe that a 45-year-old, approaching 2,000-points all-time icon would, at this time of his storied career, be taking baby steps. But that's the situation Jagr finds himself in.

"I talked to Jags and he said he's not feeling great,'' acknowledged coach Glen Gulutzan. "Obviously he flew in from Czech. I thought he looked good. He didn't think so.

"He's out there now with Paulie (Jerrard) getting a little skate. It's funny how you play that many years in the league and you still get a little bag skate when you miss training camp."

With Jagr now signed and in the fold the next obvious question is: When does he make his Flames' debut? Saturday at home to the Winnipeg Jets?

"We'll see where he's at,'' replied Gulutzan. "That's gonna be up to him because he knows."

As for Bennett, he revelled in lining up alongside a slam-dunk future Hall of Famer.

"You just kinda go with the flow. He's a legend. So obviously you're going to be watching him more than a normal player. Just having him out there giving me pointers, giving me advice, means a ton coming from a guy like that.

"He's been around forever. He's got more experience than anyone so definitely I'll be picking his brain as much as possible.

"It was a really cool practice."

Differing hair-style preferences aside - and yes, these are very, very early days in the relationship - Bennett believes the now-experimental partnership holds interesting possibilities.

"They're both skilled guys. I think if I could use my speed making plays down low, it could work out really well,'' he judged. "I'm excited to get more reps and practices with him and then hopefully we'll get out there together in games."

Jagr, meanwhile, is trying to regain his equilibrium after a truly dizzying week.

He admitted the idea that his NHL career might be at an end had entered his mind as the wait stretched on, training camps opened and closed and the regular-season beckoned.

And that's made everything tougher now.

"It was crazy, the last few days," he said. "I didn't know if I ever gonna play NHL game. And I didn't practice with any other team. Putting it in perspective, I was practicing by myself but I didn't see any future. 

"So it was kinda tough. Especially at my age. It's not easy for anybody to practice on their own but to not see much future … if I stayed in Europe, I probably take a month to get ready before I play some games.

"Now I cannot do that.

"Hopefully it's gonna come back quick."

Prospective linemates Bennett and Versteeg, along with the Flames themselves and their devotees, hope so, too.

If Jagr's mere presence at a practice can lift spirits, imagine the effect in an actual game.

"I don't know if I gave anyone a lift,'' he protested good-naturedly. "I'm just glad I survived this practice.

"Hopefully tomorrow I'm gonna feel better than I did today."

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