Florida Panthers co-owner Douglas Cifu still remembers the days as a young man watching Jaromir Jagr make life miserable for opposing defenders during his heyday with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He's just as thrilled now that Jagr is doing the same thing as a key member of the Panthers while he continues his assault on the NHL record book. Jagr will turn 44 years old on Feb. 15.
"I can't tell you what a great presence he's been [in Florida]," Cifu told Hockey This Morning on Sirius XM radio Wednesday. "He's the opposite of the aloof superstar. He's engaged, he talks to the guys, and when we do the Fan Fest everyone wants his autograph."
Jagr needs two goals to tie Brett Hull for third on the all-time list with 741, and 10 points to tie Gordie Howe for third all-time with 1,850.
"He's signed 600 autographs and was the last guy to leave the Fan Fest," Cifu said. "My son wanted to meet him and they wore mullets into the locker room and brought one for Jaromir as well. I thought this was going to be so embarrassing, but I asked Jaromir if he would mind taking a picture. Not only did he want to take the picture, but he wanted to wear the mullet, so he put it on and then kept it in his locker."
Cifu described the excitement and energy around BB&T Center these days as a result of the surging Panthers, who are second in the Eastern Conference. It's something he envisioned when he purchased the Panthers, along with partner Vincent Viola, in September 2013.
"We knew we had a lot of work to do to rebuild and gain the trust within the community," Cifu said. "We had faith in [Panthers general manager] Dale Tallon and his blueprint, and we made some tweaks with acquisitions of Jagr and [goaltender] Roberto Luongo."
Cifu said he and Viola followed the template designed by Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik for building a hockey franchise in the Florida region.
"Jeff Vinik is a bit of mentor to us," Cifu said. "He moved his entire family to Florida; right now I go back and forth. But he engrained himself in the community and that's really the key. We've got a huge youth hockey initiative and we have rinks down there, a ball hockey program with the kids and charitable events and that has all helped.
"It took a year or two for people to understand we were there for the long haul and we weren't there to move the team to another city. We built trust and, most importantly, the hockey team began to perform well when picked up Jagr and that's continued."
There are many opportunities for young players wanting to play the game in Florida. Cifu pointed to Philadelphia Flyers rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere, who was born in Margate, Fla., and played his way through the ranks before attending Union College in New York.