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Older, wiser Jagr hopes for positive NHL return

by Mike G. Morreale
VOORHEES, N.J. -- There were 66 players divided into two sessions on the ice for Philadelphia’s opening day of training camp here Saturday at the Virtua Flyers Skate Zone.

The one player in the spotlight, however, was also the oldest -- 39-year-old right wing Jaromir Jagr.

Following a three-year stint with Omsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, the Flyers signed Jagr to a one-year deal worth $3.3 million on July 1, the first day of free agency this offseason. He was introduced to the local media for the first time during a press conference following his morning session with most of the veteran players.

"I was pretty sure when I left for the KHL that it was the last time I would play in the NHL, but you can never say never," Jagr said. "You never know what life's going to bring you."

Jagr reflects on Pittsburgh

-- When rumors began circulating that Jaromir Jagr would attempt an NHL comeback, it was reported by several outlets that Penguins general manager Ray Shero offered the former Penguin $2 million to fund his comeback attempt.

Jagr won two Stanley Cups in the Steel City in his initial two seasons in the League in the 1990's. He was also considering the Detroit Red Wings in the days leading up to the opening day of free agency on July 1.

Ultimately, the Philadelphia Flyers would be his final destination.

"I would really appreciate if (Flyers fans) are happy I came and all I can tell them is I'm going to do my best to not disappoint them," Jagr said. "I don't know if I'm going to play good or bad, but I can tell you I'm 100 percent sure I'm going to do everything to be good."

Like Jagr, Talbot signed with the Flyers in the offseason -- a five-year deal worth $9 million.

"I told him I was kind of glad he didn't sign in Pittsburgh because he got more heat than me," Talbot said with a grin. "He became enemy No. 1 instead of me being enemy No. 1. But, like me, we're both happy with the decision."

Jagr was asked if he feels he betrayed the fans of Pittsburgh by signing with the rival Flyers.

"First of all, when I was making the decision, I never thought the Pittsburgh fans would want me back," he said. "Every time I played there and touched the puck, they were booing me … I didn't think it was going to be such a big deal if I'm not going to sign with Pittsburgh.

"On the other side, it was my decision. I've only been a free agent twice and I had to do what is best for me. If I hurt somebody, I apologize because I didn't want to, but I don't understand why people can be that mad about my decision."

There's no question emotions will be high Dec. 29, when the Flyers visit Pittsburgh for the first time this season.

"Even when (Jagr) was playing with the Rangers, he'd go back in Pittsburgh and would get booed," Talbot said. "I don't expect change. I think it's going to be pretty intense. As for me, I have no clue what kind of reception I'll get. I think it's going to be pretty mixed. We'll see."

Forward Claude Giroux, who led the Flyers with eight power-play goals, 51 assists and 76 points last season, centered a line with the 39-year-old Jagr and left wing James van Riemsdyk on the opening day of training camp Saturday here at the Virtua Flyers Skate Zone.

"When I was a kid, I looked up to (Jagr) because he was obviously one of the best young players to ever play," Giroux said. "So, anytime you have a guy like that on your line, it's pretty exciting. He's that kind of player who knows how to score goals and is always in good position to get open. He's been in the league for a long time, so anytime you have a player like that on your line it's good. I'll be playing with JVR too, so I was playing with two strong guys."

--Mike G. Morreale
He shared a few laughs when talk turned to his age, and almost shed a tear when discussing the recent plane crash in Russia. But, overall, the impression was Jagr is willing to do whatever it takes to make his anticipated comeback something to remember.

"There's a lot of people wondering if I can still play and that's fine with me," Jagr said. "I'm not 21. I'm not trying to prove something with my words. I can promise you one thing … I'm going to give it my best shot to play on a high level. I'm 39 now, but I didn't come here just for one year to impress myself. I'm not saying I'm going to dominate or saying I'm going to play good, but I can promise you I'm going to do all the right things to play."

Jagr, of course, will be looked upon to provide some scoring punch following the off-season departures of forwards Jeff Carter (Columbus), Mike Richards (Los Angeles) and Ville Leino (Buffalo). After all, he has 646 career NHL goals In 1,273 games spanning 17 seasons.

When he starts the season, he'll be the NHL's active scoring leader with 1,599 points.

"I think if he can get anywhere between 45 and 65 points, that's a pretty productive year," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. "Your better players are 75 to 85 points, and we're not seeing 100 point scorers anymore. Claude (Giroux) led us last year (with 76 points). Jaromir still skates well. He's never been the fastest guy, but he can keep up and has great hands and vision."

Added Flyers coach Peter Laviolette: "He's had quite a career in the NHL and he's come back with a great attitude. He wants to be part of this and that's all positive. He brings a tremendous amount of experience and offense, and that's exciting."

Jagr opened the first practice on a line with left wing James van Riemsdyk and center Claude Giroux. He also participated in 2-on-1's with another former Pittsburgh Penguin, Max Talbot.

He says a lot has changed since he won back-to-back Stanley Cups with the Penguins in 1991 and 1992.

"When I came into the league, I was 18 years old and during the communist years there were not many people who knew about the NHL," Jagr said. "All we knew about was Olympics and world championships. That was the first time I was away from the house and I was a little bit homesick and wanted to go home after the season, but we won the Cups. I didn't really appreciate what I wanted and I thought it was going to be like that every year."

Jagr, who played the last three seasons in the KHL, previously played for the Penguins, Capitals and Rangers. He last played in the NHL in 2008, producing 25 goals and 71 points in 82 games for the Rangers.

"We had a great team (in Pittsburgh) and I was lucky since I was playing with a lot of great players I learned from," he said. "It's tough to win it. You have to be lucky and good and stay out of injuries. But I think this team has a big shot to do it, and I want to be a part of it."

While Jagr is still a little unfamiliar with the top players in today's game, he admitted to keeping tabs on things via the internet.

"A lot of guys who are stars here started when I was leaving (to the KHL) and I think after the first practice, I can't really say what I thought of some players but I watched on YouTube and on some highlights of players," Jagr said. "I want to make sure to see what kind of players (the Flyers) got on the team. How they score the goals and I was impressed with (Giroux and van Riemsdyk). They are very skilled and good around the net and make good decisions."

Internationally, Jagr won an Olympic gold medal in 1998 and a bronze in 2006. He also teamed with Jakub Voracek for two gold medals at the world championships in 2005 and 2010. Voracek and Jagr, incidentally, are both from Kladno, Czech Republic.

"Everyone knows he works extremely hard, and with his age, it's pretty impressive what he's doing," Voracek said. "I know he's pretty excited to come back to the NHL and show a lot of people he can still be the best on this level."

Jagr said he has no problem playing mentor or offering advice to any young player willing to listen on the Flyers roster.

"No question … I had it when I was younger," Jagr said. "Being drafted by the Penguins was probably the best thing to happen to me because I had a chance to play with such great players. Not only great players but hard-working guys. Those Penguins' teams of the early 90s were the best in the NHL because you would see all those guys and how hard they worked after practice … Ulf Samuelsson, Rick Tocchet, Kevin Stevens. They competed against each other and I'm trying to do it with them and that's what put me on a different level. So if someone asks me, I will definitely help."

Follow Mike Morreale on Twitter at: @mike_morreale

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