When he first signed with the Philadelphia Flyers last summer, Jaromir Jagr had no idea what to expect. The future Hall of Famer had been away from the NHL for three seasons, and did not know most of his new teammates. Although he had been a visiting player – a frequently booed one at that – in Philadelphia for many years, he really did not know the city or the fanbase all that well.
Likewise, Jagr’s new teammates were unsure what they would get from the team’s newest acquisition, on or off the ice.
As things turned out, Jagr’s acquisition effectively plugged the gap left by the departure of Ville Leino. One season after Leino contributed 19 goals and 53 points in the regular season plus five points in 11 playoff games, Jagr stepped in to post 19 goals and 54 points during the 2011-12 regular season and then added 8 points in 11 playoff matches.
But statistics only tell half of the story of what Jagr brought to the team this season.
The Philadelphia PHWA nominee for the Masterton Trophy proved to be an invaluable leader and mentor in the locker room. Young players and veterans alike looked up to him for his work ethic, and appreciated his willingness to share generously of his knowledge of the game as well as his ready smile and playful sense of humor that kept everyone else loose.
“Our young kids got to learn from some good veteran guys and Jaromir was a huge part of that, huge,” said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. “Not only his play on the ice and what he brought to our locker room, [but] what he brought to the practice rink and our strength and condition room was outstanding. I think having him around for the young guys was a great, great thing.”
Even in the anguish of the Flyers’ playoff defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Devils and facing impending free agency that may or may not result in a return to Philadelphia next season, Jagr declared the 2011-12 season the most personally gratifying of his storied two-decade career.
“I love everybody on this team. That was probably my most enjoyable year I ever had. I won some Cups, I won some trophies, but I love this year. From the organization to the last player on the team and the fans, they were so nice to me,” said Jagr after the Flyers were eliminated in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinal.
Jagr’s pronouncement carries the weight of all of the personal and team accolades he’s accumulated over his career. He is, after, all a six-time finalist and one-time winner of the Hart Trophy as Most Valuable Player in the NHL, three-time Ted Lindsay Award (formerly Lester Pearson Award) as MVP selected by fellow NHL players and five-time Art Ross Trophy winner as the league’s top scorer. On a team level, he owns a pair of Stanley Cup rings, an Olympic gold medal and a pair of IIHF World Championship golds.
Nevertheless, the 40-year-old Czech said that he is happy and grateful that his agent, former Flyers defenseman Petr Svoboda, convinced him to return to the NHL this season and recommended that he choose Philadelphia over offers for more money from other teams.
“Thanks to him I am here in the U.S.,” Jagr said of Svoboda. “Last year, if he didn't push me, I would probably stay in Europe. He told me it would be a good idea to come back and play again. I am glad I listened to him because it was probably the best year and most fun I have had.”
The bond that formed between Jagr and his teammates was palpable. At the team’s postseason media day, numerous players who worked alongside Jagr all season said that he not only helped the team but also helped them individually to be better hockey players in their mental approach and conditioning regimens.
Scott Hartnell, who spent most of season as Jagr’s linemate, said that Jagr was a “mentor of sorts” not only to young players on the team such as Jakub Voracek but to veterans like Hartnell himself. Hartnell admitted that, prior to the season, he was among those who was uncertain of Jagr’s influence on the team. By the end of the season, the All-Star left winger ranked Jagr among the most positive influences and most unselfish, team-oriented players with whom he’d ever shared a locker room.
Jagr is slated to become an unrestricted free agent on July 1. Svoboda and the Flyers have yet to significantly discuss a new one-year contract, but Jagr himself indicated that the primary basis for his decision will be whether the team sees him in its plans to continue playing on the top line and compete to return to the top power play unit (head coach Peter Laviolette moved Wayne Simmonds onto the first unit in the second half of the season).
“I don't know what kind of direction Philadelphia is going to go. What is my situation going to be? I don't think they know right now. We have a long summer to think about it and talk about it,” said Jagr.
The Flyers are also taking a wait-and-see approach. Holmgren was effusive in praising Jagr’s impact on the club this season but also noted that the final decision may have to wait until the start of free agency on July 1.
“I’d like to have him back,” said Holmgren. “We’ll see, I think there will be other teams that would like to have him on their team, too.”
For their part, Jagr’s teammates fully recognize that hockey is a business. Nevertheless, they are glad for the chance to have played with the living legend and hope things work out on both sides to allow for an encore next season.
“If you ask anyone on this team, everyone wants him back,” said Claude Giroux. “He is a good team player and he has helped so many guys in this room on and off the ice. It would be great to have him back, but I am not sure what the plans are. He is that kind of teammate that you want on your team.”