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100 Greatest Players

Jaromir Jagr: 100 Greatest NHL Players

Workhorse wing won two Stanley Cup titles in Pittsburgh, second on NHL points list

by Stu Hackel / Special to NHL.com

How does one sum up the long, kaleidoscopic career of Jaromir Jagr? 

It seems as if his big smile, boyish charm, mullet and incredible skill -- not to mention his large posterior (he admits having trouble finding jeans that fit him) -- have always been with us. Even during his three Kontinental Hockey League seasons, we always kept an eye on him, just as he kept an eye on the NHL from afar, longing to return.

 

Video: Jaromir Jagr second on NHL points list

 

When he did -- renewed and rededicated -- the world seemed right again, one of hockey's greatest performers and personalities back on its largest, most demanding stage, even as he bounced from team to team, as if to spread the Gospel of Jagr to as many cities as possible.

He converted many. Late in his career, a group of wig-wearing Calgary-based fans even took to dressing in an array of Jagr sweaters -- Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, New York Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils, Florida Panthers, NHL All-Star, Czech Republic -- calling themselves "The Traveling Jagrs" and attending their hero's games in various NHL towns.

He has been largely adored but never ignored, even when fans have taken issue with him. More than 25 years after entering the NHL, Jaromir Jagr has never been irrelevant.

 

JAROMIR JAGR CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats

 

So how does one sum him up? Let us count the ways.

The simplest way is to review his resume. 

Start with his trophies and awards. He has won the Stanley Cup twice; the Art Ross Trophy as League scoring champion five times; the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player; the Lester Pearson (now Ted Lindsay) Award as the League's most outstanding player, as voted by the players, three times; and the Bill Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. He has also made the NHL First All-Star Team seven times and the Second All-Star Team once.

Moving to the NHL's all-time leaderboard, he's second in points, third in goals and fifth in assists.

We can also take the long view: In 2013-14, he turned 42 and led the Devils in scoring; two seasons later, at 44, he led the Panthers in scoring and was a main factor in their first-place Atlantic Division finish. Jagr has joined a select group of players -- Hall of Famers Gordie Howe, Chris Chelios, Gump Worsley, Johnny Bower, Jacques Plante, Dominik Hasek, Tim Horton, Doug Harvey, Dave Keon, Johnny Bucyk, Mark Messier, and Igor Larionov among them -- who made a sizable impact well into their 40s.

Video: Jagr takes over second all-time in NHL points (1,888)

"As a guy who played until he was 41, I understand just how tough it is to play in the league as an older player," Carolina Hurricanes general manager and former Penguins teammate Ron Francis told sportsnet.ca. "It's fantastic what he's able to do out there. And the fact is, it's tougher to play in the League in your 40s now than it was in my last years. The game's faster across the board." 

Then there's the thoughtful approach. Here's what his then-coach with the Penguins, Scotty Bowman, told Sports Illustrated's E.M. Swift in 1992: "He's a different type of player than the League has seen in a long time. He has a lot of Frank Mahovlich in him. His skating style and strength make him almost impossible to stop 1-on-1. A lot of big guys play with their sticks tight to their bodies and don't use that reach to their advantage like Jaromir does.

"When Jaromir gets the puck, he's always thinking, 'Where can I go with it?' He reminds me of Maurice Richard in that way. They both played the off-wing, and both had so many moves I don't think either knew which moves they were going to do until they did them. Totally unpredictable."

Decades later, after having those words read back to him, Bowman found them still true. "That's him," Bowman said. "He hasn't changed much, except he plays more now from the blue line in. He's still very tough around the goal line. He likes to fish pucks behind the net and in the corner. He's got a good sense for the net. I mean, he seems to score goals and you say, 'How the hell did that go in?'

"There aren't many players I've ever seen who can hold the puck the way he does. He's really physically strong and -- even now, at 44, almost 45 -- you think he's going to be checked, he comes out of the corner and you think a guy is going to poke the puck off his stick, but it never happens."

Many of those qualities were on display on the goal that Bowman, and many others, can't forget, during the 1992 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, when Jagr was 20. Five minutes remained in Game 1 and Pittsburgh trailed by a goal late in the third period when Jagr picked off a Brent Sutter outlet pass and skated to the half-boards where, with his back to the wall, he was surrounded by three Blackhawks. He slid the puck between Sutter's legs and elastically oozed past him, extending his arm and stick to their full lengths to gather the puck back in again at the faceoff dot and, in the same motion, immediately swept it to his backhand, which left the oncoming defenseman Frantisek Kucera checking only air. Jagr took three strong strides through the slot, maneuvering around the roadblock created by teammate Shawn McEachern, who had tied up Igor Kravchuk trying to get at Jagr. Then, from 15 feet out, he ripped a backhander past Ed Belfour to tie the game.

One of his heroes and mentors, Mario Lemieux, who scored the game-winning goal in the final seconds of regulation, called it "the greatest goal I've ever seen." All these years later, it would still be a candidate for that honor.

Video: 1992 Cup Final, Gm1: Jaromir Jagr won't be denied

How about sustained superiority? For four consecutive seasons (1997-98 to 2000-01), Jagr led the NHL in scoring. Only Wayne Gretzky (who did it eight straight years), Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito and Jagr have accomplished that. 

Jagr had already shared the scoring title in 1994-95 with Eric Lindros, and he nearly won it again in 2005-06 when he finished with 123 points (and 54 goals, both Rangers records), two behind San Jose Sharks center Joe Thornton. 

Can we talk about his dedication? The countless hours he spent improving his shot, using weighted sticks and forcing backup goalies to stay long after practice while he fired pucks at them? How about his regular midnight phone calls to his strength coach, beckoning him to the gym for workouts? Or his flipping on the lights at the practice rink while the rest of the world is asleep to skate solo? Or his mentoring of players like Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek in Philadelphia, Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau in Florida and Petr Prucha in New York.

And then there's the love for a player who largely has been one of hockey's most popular figures. 

In the early '90s, long before "The Traveling Jagrs," Penguins fans learned he loved a certain brand of chocolate bar. He was flooded with them in the mail. "I eat them all," he said with a laugh. 

A New Jersey brewery even launched a new Czech-style Pilsner beer, Jaromir Lager, with his likeness on the label.

Jagr, who was born Feb. 15, 1972, in Kladno, Czechoslovakia, began skating at 3 and played organized hockey before he started attending school. He also adopted a rigorous calisthenics program when he was 5 and has always maintained a furious workout regimen. He regularly played with kids as much as four years older.

"My father's idea," he told Sports Illustrated in 1992. "When I played against other 6-year-olds, I was great. When I played against 10-year-olds, I was average. He wanted me to play where I was average."

A hockey prodigy if there ever was one, he was so advanced by 12 that he started playing junior hockey. To get permission, his father and coaches had him tested by a prominent Prague doctor -- who judged his overall fitness as better than that of some professional athletes -- and then appealed to various hockey administrators to reclassify him to play with older boys. He scored 24 goals and 41 points in 34 games for the Kladno juniors that year and in his next three seasons averaged more than two points a game. 

Officially, Jagr didn't begin playing professionally for the Kladno team in the top Czech league until he was 16. Unofficially, when he was still 15 in January 1988, he played for his country in an international tournament, scoring a goal and getting his first paycheck. "I was actually playing illegally," he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, "so there was no Jagr on the roster. I was hiding behind the name Zdenek Hrabe," who was an older pro on Kladno. 

Pittsburgh selected him with the No. 5 pick in the 1990 NHL Draft after Pierre McGuire scouted him for the Penguins at the World Junior Championship in Helsinki, where Jagr had five goals and 18 points in seven games for Czechoslovakia, which won a bronze medal. "He was an amazing puck possession player," McGuire said years later. "For a player of that age to be that strong and dominate the puck really stood out. He played with Bobby Holik and Robert Reichel and the Russians had Pavel Bure, Sergei Fedorov and Alexander Mogilny -- and there really wasn't much separating those lines except Jagr's size and his ability to dominate the puck."

Unlike his mullet, which was shorn and returned, the desire to dominate never left. 

"I don't think there was ever a time he didn't want the puck," Penguins teammate Robert Lang told sportsnet.ca. "I think he could be on his deathbed and he will still be like, 'Hey, give me the puck.'"

Jagr has said he'd like to play until he's 50. But as 2017 dawned, he had a new number in mind.

"Fifty-five. I just changed it. Because I feel so good," he said, laughing. "I'll go to 55."

Don't bet against him.

 

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