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After Worlds, Jagr ponders his hockey future

by Bill Meltzer /
Over the course of the 2011 World Championship in Slovakia, Jaromir Jagr showed the hockey world that he is still capable of dominating games at age 39. Not only does Jagr still have the soft hands that have produced 646 goals and 1,599 points in 1,273 regular season games, he still has his legendary lower-body strength that enables him to shield the puck from opposing defenders.

Highlighted by a hat trick against Team USA in the medal round quarterfinals, Jagr racked up 5 goals and 9 points in nine games for the bronze medal-winning Czech Republic. Last year, the former NHL superstar produced 7 points in nine games, leading a lightly regarded Czech team to the gold medal. Along with defenseman Jiri Slegr, Jagr is one of only two Czech players -- and 24 overall -- to have won a Stanley Cup (1991 and 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins), an Olympic gold medal (1998) and a World Championship gold medal (2005 and 2010).

In the weeks to come, Jagr will have to make a decision about where he will continue his career. He has played the last three seasons in the KHL with Avangard Omsk, but will not be returning to the club next season. This past year, Jagr dressed in 49 of 54 regular season games, scoring 19 goals and 51 points to rank eighth in the league. He produced 2 goals and 9 points in 14 playoff tilts.

Jagr last played in the NHL in 2007-08, scoring 25 goals and 71 points for the New York Rangers during the regular season. His play picked up in the playoffs, as the Rangers reached the second round thanks in no small part to the 5 goals and 15 points the Czech veteran racked up in 10 games.

During the World Championships, a flood of rumors surfaced that Jagr was planning a return to the NHL next season. The most prevalent speculation was that he would be going back to Pittsburgh, where his North American career began and he enjoyed many of his best years. There has also been speculation he might opt for the Big Apple, where the four-time Art Ross Trophy winner revived his career after two-plus disappointing (by his standards) seasons with the Washington Capitals. Likewise, the possibilities of Jagr playing for the Montreal Canadiens or Edmonton Oilers have also been raised.

Like many European players, Jagr maintains separate representation for negotiations in the NHL and with European teams. He is represented in North America by Pat Brisson of CAA Hockey, while in Europe, his agent is Jaroslav Zidek.

Brisson has gone on record saying that he is net yet sure whether Jagr wants to return to North America next season, while Zidek has said that he only knows offers on the table from KHL clubs. Jagr, an unrestricted free agent, could sign with any NHL team on July 1. If he opts for the KHL, training camp would start in late July.

Penguins general manager Ray Shero was in Slovakia for the World Championship. However, he insisted this week that he never crossed paths with the former Pittsburgh icon in Bratislava, nor have the two men ever met face-to-face. Jagr was invited by the organization to a summer golf event that will reunite the members of the Penguins' first Cup-winning team, but he declined the invitation on the basis that he does not enjoy golfing.

Nevertheless, the player is not publicly closing the door to the idea of an NHL comeback. Jagr is currently attending the French Open tennis tournament as part of an offseason vacation and is not available for comment this week, but he fanned the flames of speculation immediately after the bronze medal win over Russia at the Worlds.

"Maybe it would be fun to play in the NHL," he told "Maybe Pittsburgh. Maybe Montreal. Maybe New York. I played in Pittsburgh a long time and Mario [Lemieux] is the owner, and it's always better to play with great centers like (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin, the game's a little bit easier then. ... New York? I'll never forget that they gave me a second chance. Montreal? They're crazy about hockey and I've never played in Canada."

During the World Championship, Jagr displayed strong chemistry with Canadiens center and fellow Kladno native Tomas Plekanec. Playing eight of the nine tournament games after the Habs were eliminated by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs, Plekanec compiled 6 goals and 10 points for the Czechs. The third member of the line, Roman Cervenka, piled up 4 goals and 10 points. Cervenka, 25, played with Jagr in Omsk this season after becoming a breakout star in the Czech Extraliga with HC Slavia Prague.  

If Jagr were to make his way to Montreal, the opportunity to continue playing with a skilled forward such as Plekanec could be part of the allure. For his part, the 28-year-old Plekanec would welcome an extended chance to play with Jagr, but realizes that such decisions are out of his control.

"We didn't talk about [playing in Montreal] at all during the World Championships. All the focus was on the games," Plekanec said. "Would it be great to play with Jaromir again? Of course, but he has a lot of possibilities. I have no doubt he can still play in the NHL if he wants to. He's still a great player."

Retirement is a non-issue at this point, as Jagr has said that he feels strong enough to keep going. Whenever Jagr finally decides that his next season will be his last, he has pledged to end his career with HC Kladno, his hometown team in the Czech Extraliga. As with Lemieux in Pittsburgh, Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund with Modo Hockey in Sweden and Sami Kapanen and Kimmo Timonen with KalPa Kuopio in Finland, Jagr has taken a hand in the management of the team with whom he broke into the game. Jagr is the president of the HC Kladno organization.

In the more immediate future, the two primary factors that Jagr has to consider is whether he wants to prepare for the grind of the NHL's 82-game regular season and the increased physical play on the smaller ice surface. The KHL regular season is 54 games, but the regular season starts a month earlier and the schedule includes travel that is equally grueling -- if not even more so -- than the NHL schedule. In addition, Jagr may want to see if he can still measure up to the world's top league over a full season.
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