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Jagr finds comfort in successful return to NHL

by Kurt Dusterberg
RALEIGH, N.C. -- It is the morning of a road game, the second of a back-to-back set. Just eight Philadelphia Flyers have taken the ice for the skate ahead of that night's game against the Carolina Hurricanes -- but Jaromir Jagr is a conspicuous presence among them.

When the informal group finally sets up in the faceoff circles to fire a few wrist shots at the goaltender, the 39-year-old Jagr pumps his first shot inside the near post. He curls out of the circle without a sound, but with a wide grin on his face.

That's what you notice first about Jagr. He seems happy. Toward the end of his first go-round in the NHL, that wasn't so obvious to the hockey world.

"I was always happy," Jagr told as he shed his practice gear. "Sometimes you're happier than other times. I was happiest when I came into the League. You don't feel any pressure, any responsibility. You just go and play the game."

Some of that feeling is back for Jagr, three years after he left the NHL for a stint in the Kontinental Hockey League, Russia's top pro league. His last six NHL seasons, split between Washington and the New York Rangers, chipped away at his hockey psyche. With a hefty contract and even larger expectations from his teams, Jagr longed for hockey that came without so many burdens.


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"When you're older, you're more responsible for the team's success," he said. "You have to be careful what you do with the puck. You want to make sure you don't mistakes. When you're a kid, you don't worry about mistakes."

So far, as the 2011-12 season reaches its quarter mark, Jagr is rediscovering the kid in him. Despite missing a couple of games with a lower-body injury recently, Jagr is flourishing again in the NHL, authoring one of the best stories of an unforgettable opening to the season.

Philadelphia provides the proper niche for Jagr to excel. Possessing a nice balance of established stars and emerging ones, as well as some strong personalities in the dressing room, the Czech forward is left unencumbered to rise to whatever level he can attain in his 22nd season of pro hockey.

"I feel better than when I was leaving a few years ago," he said.

Without the worry of carrying his team, Jagr has re-established his credentials as an elite NHL forward. He has 17 points in 18 games and serves as an ideal linemate for budding star Claude Giroux, who is just 23.

"There are a lot more young guys," Jagr said, discussing the difference between the NHL he left and the one he rejoined this season.
The game itself has also changed.

"Now it's more about, put the puck on the net and go get a rebound," he said. "Before, I think it was about trying to make a play. Guys are good at it. There's a lot more goals around the net than there was before."

The style of play is more workmanlike than Jagr was accustomed to in the old days. When asked if he is suited to the current approach, he laughs quietly. With his head down, he mumbles, "No."

"It's fine with me, but I cannot really change much."

That was more of a gut reaction than a complaint. His voice quickly rises and he arrives forcefully at a point he wants to share.
"You're learning every day. Even if you're almost 40, you're learning. I have to adjust a little bit to stay in the League."

That attitude has endeared him to Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette, who gives Jagr credit for improving the power play.

"He's been terrific since he's been here," Laviolette said. "I know that he's happy when he comes to the rink, and when he's on the ice he's got a big smile on his face. It seems like he's happy to be back in the National Hockey League."

There's no indication that the current season will constitute an NHL farewell tour.

"When we're talking about the NHL, I don't know when is going to be my last game," he said. "I thought my last game was three years ago. It's all about if you're willing to practice and work hard and if you stay healthy. I think the age doesn't really matter."

Later that night, Jagr got a chance to be an old-school playmaker again. Twice he set up Giroux for goals with nice passes through the middle of the ice.
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