A hockey life: Older, wiser Jaromir Jagr continues to live his dream

May 28, 2013 - 7:15 am

Hours after the Bruins'€™ 5-2 victory over the Rangers last Sunday, the TD Garden sat still and empty. The boisterous crowd had long since departed after Boston took care of business, holding serve on home ice, supplying the team with a 2-0 series lead in its Stanley Cup playoff conference semifinal series. The players and coaches trickled steadily out of the building, the janitorial crew had finished cleaning. Hours after the final whistle, Jaromir Jagr returned, alone, to the ice. '€œHockey is who he is,'€ said Mark Recchi, Jagr's former Penguins teammate. Last seen in a Bruins sweater hoisting the Stanley Cup, Recchi now is a hockey operations advisor with the Stars, the team that dealt Jagr to the Bruins. '€œThat'€™s his life. He'€™s passionate about it, he works hard at it, and he still wants to be a great player. He does whatever it takes to stay at that level.'€ In front of 17,565 empty golden seats, the 41-year-old Jagr skated. Using every inch of his 6-foot-3, 240 pound frame, the forward from Kladno pushed himself, feeling the burn in his thickly muscled thighs. Living over 3,900 miles from his family in the Czech Republic, Jagr needed to be back on the ice, back home. The man with such phenomenal balance on skates then skated some more. '€œThis is playoffs,'€ reminded Jagr. '€œAny player will find out. It doesn'€™t matter if you'€™re on the first, second line or third. It'€™s tight checking. It'€™s harder to score.'€ Jagr began his NHL career with the Penguins but now is looking to end Pittsburgh's season. His playoff resume includes 78 playoff goals, though none have come recently. Amidst the longest scoring drought of his career, Jagr has not scored in 21 consecutive playoff games (his last playoff goal came against the Penguins in 2012). Though he has accumulated 193 playoff points over the course of his career, Jagr has registered just four points in 12 games during the Bruins' 2013 postseason run. '€œIt'€™s harder to score for me, and it'€™s harder to score for anybody else," he said. "Unless you the best player in the world.'€ Jagr would know better than most, considering, once upon a time, he was the best in the world. Just like Jagr can'€™t fathom the idea of leaving the rink after a game (he is on record stating his desire for the NHL to begin playing doubleheaders), the concept of life without hockey is far removed from his mind. The offensive dervish entered the National Hockey League at the age of 18. Since then, every imaginable part of his life -- and the world -- has changed. His identity as a hockey player has evolved over the past 23 years, but his profession remains unchanged. Jaromir Jagr, all these years later, is still a hockey player. '€œI don't think he'll ever change,'€ said Craig Patrick, general manager of the Penguins from 1989-2006. '€œHe was built this way.'€ Growing up in hockey-crazed Kladno, a city of 110,000 with roots dating back to the 14th century, Jagr has always been connected to the sport. There was a time in his life, however, when he was not yet an international icon. The Jagr family lived a life without luxuries. Jagr's father, also named Jaromir, worked an administrative job at the coal mine in Kladno. The family was no different than any other family, forced to wait in line for fresh meats, bread and fruit. The Jagrs suffered when the communists took over Czechoslovakia in 1948, seizing control of Jagr'€™s grandfather'€™s farm. The grandfather, also named Jaromir, was told by the communist government to return to work at the farm. Except, this time, he would be working for free, slaving away for the government. '€œMy family gave their life for me,'€ said Jagr, '€œso I have to follow my dream and make them proud.'€ Upon refusing to work under a communist regime, Jaromir's grandfather was immediately tossed into jail and languished there for over two years. He died in 1968, the same year as the Czechoslovakian freedom movement, four years before the birth of his grandson. Jagr'€™s grandmother shared tales of her husband with her young grandson, and the boy grew up with a very anti-communist slant. Though he was scolded multiple times in school, he kept a picture of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in a school book. Along with his Wayne Gretzky poster, he also tacked a picture of Martina Navratilova -- the star tennis play who defected -- on his wall. Jaromir dreamed of breaking free and playing against the most talented hockey players in the world. While he dominated the competition, the number 68 -- the same year his grandfather died, the same year as the freedom movement -- would be scratched onto his helmet. '€œYou follow your dream,'€ said Jagr. '€œThat'€™s what I did.'€ For the Penguins, there was never a doubt that Jagr wanted to play in the NHL. Not many other teams, however, shared that opinion. '€œWhen we interviewed him, Jaromir made it clear that he wanted to come to play in North America,'€ said Patrick, who also served as the assistant coach to Herb Brooks on the U.S. Olympic team in 1980. '€œI don't think the other organizations had the same feeling, otherwise they would have drafted him. He idolized Mario Lemieux, and I have a funny feeling he was telling us a different story than he was telling the other people. I don'€™t know that for sure, but that'€™s my guess. When I spoke with other organizations afterward, they were all saying they thought he didn't want to leave.'€ The Penguins selected Jagr with the fifth overall pick of the 1990 NHL draft. Pittsburgh's top executives were in Switzerland to watch the 1990 World Championships, and they walked away salivating over the mullet-haired, fourth-line forward. '€œI saw him in the World Championships at the end of the year,'€ Patrick said. '€œWe were really impressed with him. He was on the fourth line and didn'€™t get a lot of ice time because the Czechs were going with their veteran guys and he was a 17-year-old kid. He didn't get a lot of ice time, so I didn'€™t get a lot of exposure in terms of seeing him play, but our scouts had him rated, by far, as the top guy in the draft.'€ Recchi, who would go on to win a Stanley Cup with Jagr during the 1991 season, was eager to play with Jagr. '€œI was in Europe for the World Championships, so I actually saw him play the year he got drafted,'€ said Recchi. '€œHis skill level was unbelievable. I remember Craig Patrick telling me that he thought he was going to get Jagr at that No. 5 pick and he was real excited about it. He was this big, lanky kid then, a little skinnier, but his hands and skill were incredible.'€ The Penguins knew they had drafted a prize, but they never expected him to quickly blossom into the best player in the world. '€œWhen he first showed up here, he had thighs of thunder. Just unbelievable legs,'€ said Patrick. '€œFrom the top of his hips down to his ankles, he was awesome. He needed to build his upper body, which he eventually did, but to have that kind of muscular attributes between his upper hips and knees is incredible, and Jagr had it.'€ With Jagr barely able to speak any English, the Pens understood he was having problems adjusting to life so far removed from his comfort zone at home. The team attempted to have veteran Bryan Trottier mentor him throughout the first half of the season, but the language barrier, even with a Berlitz course, was too much to overcome. Patrick dealt for Jiri Hrdina in December of 1990, a move that greatly helped Jagr adjust to life in the pros. '€œThe transition to the NHL was definitely hard for him,'€ Recchi said. '€œThe best thing the Penguins did was bring in Hrdina. He had won a Cup in Calgary, plus he was Czechoslovakian, and he was just the perfect fit for our hockey club. He came in and just settled down our fourth line [Bruins fans can completely understand the importance of a solid fourth line] and really helped out Jaromir.'€ Jagr went on to dominate in Pittsburgh, collecting two Stanley Cups, winning four straight scoring titles and earning the Hart Memorial Trophy in 1999, recognizing him as the game's most valuable player. The name '€œJaromir'€ no longer was just an anagram for Mario Jr. '€œEven by the end of that first year, he was coming into his own,'€ Patrick said. '€œHe started taking over our games and became a real force in the playoffs. Then he just got better and better and better after that.'€ Jagr, once called '€œthe best player in the game by a million miles'€ by Hall of Famer and then-Blackhawks coach Denis Savard, now affects the game in a different fashion. He adapted his play, learning from the many stages of his career. After a trade from Pittsburgh sent Jagr to the Capitals in 2001, he also made a stop in the Czech league during the 2004-05 NHL labor dispute, received a taste of the Big Apple in New York with Rangers, took a three-year, self-imposed exile in Russia'€™s Kontinental Hockey League with Avangard Omsk, and then returned to the NHL in 2011 with the Flyers. Jagr still thinks fondly of his time in New York. '€œTo score 50 goals in New York,'€ he reflected, '€œto be named captain, that'€™s pretty special.'€ Yet it was his time in Russia that had a profound effect on his psyche. Jagr had just skated a shift and returned to the bench with Alexei Cherepanov, a teammate with Avangard Omsk and draft pick of the Rangers. Suddenly the 19-year-old Cherepanov collapsed. The two men never skated together again, as Cherepanov was pronounced dead later that evening. The Cherepanov death still affects Jagr. Though religion once was viewed as propaganda by the communists while he was a child, Jagr learned in Russia -- the one-time home of the Soviets -- to embrace it. Surrounded by hockey tape and a tissue box in his Bruins locker sits a small religious keepsake, a Madonna and her child. The man once exalted for his talent on the ice understands that there is no worship of false idols, and he knows he has evolved over time as a person and as a player. '€œYou learn every day,'€ Jagr said. '€œOnce you stop learning, you kind of dead. You have to quit. I'€™m learning every day, even at 41. The game is changing. The world moves faster, the game is quicker, everything'€™s quicker. If you want to stay in this league, you have to find a way to adjust. The players are getting faster, better, quicker. You cannot play the same game you play in 1990, you cannot play that game in 2013. It'€™s kind of impossible. It'€™s like if you drove the best car in 1990 right now, it would look stupid.'€ 1990, the year Jagr entered the league, is a distant 23 years ago. In the world of professional hockey, there is no mistaking that Jagr is ancient. '€œI think my dad was growing up when [Jagr] started playing,'€ 21-year-old Tyler Seguin said. '€œI wasn'€™t even born.'€ Jagr's age has become permanently affixed to his name. He is the 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr. '€œWe didn't get the 25-year-old Jags,'€ Bruins coach Claude Julien said, "but more of a Jags who is a little bit older but still extremely good at what he does." Mark Recchi, known during the Bruins' Stanley Cup of 2011 as '€œthe 43-year-old Mark Recchi,'€ can relate. '€œIt's a compliment, really,'€ Recchi said with a laugh. '€œThis is a young man's game, so to be able to keep doing it against these youngsters is a compliment. I found it pretty comical, but it'€™s really a compliment. We'€™re still able to do things at an age where most people can't.'€ Jagr'€™s longevity is admired by his teammates. '€œYou have to be a pretty good player to play until you'€™re 41,'€ said Rich Peverley, who owns the locker next to Jagr. '€œHe'€™s a future Hall of Famer and a tremendous athlete, so to be able to play with a guy like that, and sit beside him in the locker room, is pretty special.  He'€™s an extraordinary athlete.'€ '€œThe most important thing is you feel better than the guy you play against,'€ said Jagr. '€œThat'€™s always my thing. Even if I feel tired, I'€™m always telling myself, '€˜That guy who I play against, he'€™s feeling a lot worse than me.'€™ You need to trick the brain.'€ After initially joking about Jagr's age, Seguin marveled at his ability to play the game at a tremendously high level for such an extended period of time. '€œPlaying with him has been a great experience,'€ Seguin said. '€œHe'€™s definitely someone you'€™re in awe with when he'€™s walking around. He'€™s a good teammate and a leader, so I'€™m taking as much as I can and learning from him.'€ '€œHe deserves a lot of credit keeping himself going this long,'€ Julien said. '€œWhere he may have lost a little bit of speed, he made up with smarts. He makes good decisions, he'€™s strong with the puck, and he makes things happen. He may be hard on himself, but we knew what we were getting. We'€™re getting what we expected and maybe even a little bit more." A reason for such longevity and continued brilliance on the ice is thanks to Jagr'€™s religious work ethic. '€œYou have to stay healthy, and conditioning is a big part of that,'€ Recchi said. '€œCoach Badger Bob [Johnson, Penguins coach from 1990 until his death in 1991] put me in between Joey Mullen and Bryan Trottier, and I couldn'€™t have been in a better place to learn. Jaromir watched how these guys prepared and how they did it. We were a team that worked out and kept up with our conditioning after games, so those were absolutely great guys to learn from.'€ '€œYou have the advantage by having the experience for that many years you play the hockey,'€ confirmed Jagr. '€œThat'€™s a huge advantage when you get compared to other guys. You have to play to your strengths. You know what'€™s your weakness, you know what'€™s your strength. Obviously I'€™m not going to play up-and-down hockey with these guys, I don'€™t think I would have a chance. I can play other kind of hockey and I'€™ll have a better chance against them.'€ Said current linemate Patrice Bergeron: '€œUsually when you talk about great players throughout the years, their work ethic has always brought them to the next level, and he'€™s one of those guys. He'€™s always working on something to get better and, as you can see, it goes a long way.'€ The opportunity to call himself Jagr'€™s teammate is a thrill for Bruins defenseman Matt Bartkowski, a 24-year-old Pittsburgh native. '€œI never thought I'€™d ever been in the same locker room as him,'€ said Bartkowski, who revealed that he had a Jagr poster on his wall growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1990s. '€œPlaying with him is pretty cool. I had always heard he was a hard-worker, but I never really had any idea how much he puts into it. Every other second you look at him, he'€™s doing something else to work on his game.'€ To Jagr'€™s credit, he'€™s come as advertised. '€œHe'€™s a threat every time he'€™s on the ice,'€ Julien said. '€œYou can see teams really playing him hard. They have to put some big guys out there when he'€™s on the ice. He'€™s a big body and he'€™s hard to move. We moved him up with Bergeron'€™s line the past couple of games, and that line -- whether it'€™s by coincidence or whatever -- has started to produce.'€ Bergeron and Brad Marchand have produced significantly since Jagr joined their line, a development that is far from a coincidence. "Right now, he's a little snake-bitten because he's had some good opportunities to score and they haven't gone in for him," said Julien. "The good part is he's created those, he's made those happen. His line has been a good line and he's part of that. He brings a lot of players towards him because they know, one-on-one, they can't do that with him. He's so strong and good on the puck, and that makes room for other guys. His line has been able to take advantage of that." Said Recchi: "Jagr wears on people because he's so big and strong. He'€™s just a big body that holds on to the puck and creates space for his teammates. Whether he'€™s scoring or not, he'€™s still having an impact on the game. That'€™s really important." Patrick did not disagree with Recchi'€™s assessment. "When Jaromir was in Philly [with the Flyers], guess who he mentored?" asked Patrick. "Jake Voracek. Look at the kind of season he had [a then-career high with 18 goals] because he spent some time with Jaromir. He'€™s a great person to be around. He draws a lot of attention and makes everybody else better. That'€™s what he does." Jagr'€™s play still has a tremendous affect on his linemates in five-on-five hockey (the success experienced by Bergeron and Marchand also was seen in Philadelphia with Scott Hartnell and Claude Giroux), while also adding a dangerous element to the B'€™s power play. '€œHe'€™s so smart with the puck,'€ Recchi said. '€œIt's a puck control game for him, and that'€™s where Bergy and Marchy are so great, they get in there, cycle the puck, and they puck control. They'€™ve scored some beautiful goals on the rush, but you'€™ll see most of their goals are hard work and creating offense from a lot of puck control. That'€™s where Jaromir'€™s great, and he'€™s been thrown out there and fits in so well with those two guys. It'€™s been great to see.'€ With hockey still swimming through Jagr'€™s veins and pumping the blood into his heart, the kid from Kladno -- who continues to wear No. 68 -- still has ambitious goals for his career. '€œI want to score a goal in the Czech league when I'€™m 50,'€ Jagr proclaimed after last Saturday'€™s practice at TD Garden. Now he has a new goal. Twenty-two years after getting his first taste of Lord Stanley, Jagr is driven to win another Stanley Cup. '€œAll he wants now is to win another Cup,'€ Recchi said. '€œWhen you get used to winning, it'€™s really great because you never allow yourself to get used to losing. You still feel it when you win and there'€™s no better feeling, so when you lose, it really sucks. Now that he'€™s in the midst of this run with the Bruins, you can still see his passion and his drive. I mean, he threw a body check against New York in Game 3. I don't think he'€™s thrown many body checks the last number of years. You can see he'€™s got that feeling again, knowing how great it is, and that opportunity has arrived. You don'€™t get many chances, and his excitement to win again is there.'€ Said Jagr: '€œYou have to work hard and play. It doesn'€™t really matter how many goals you'€™ve scored, it'€™s just about confidence. Any good play can build confidence. Any good pass, or score a goal, that can change everything around. You just need to work hard and go to it. I'€™m not going to give up. Of course I would like to help this team much more than I do now, but the only thing I can do about it is work hard.'€ Patrick, for one, would love to see Jagr win one more championship. '€œKnowing Jaromir, and I know him pretty well, he'€™s enjoying the role he'€™s in now,'€ Patrick said. '€œI think he wishes he was more productive, but he will be. He'€™ll come through, big time, before this is over. I hope he wins the Cup, I really do.'€ Jagr, still tricking his brain into thinking he can compete, skates on. He battles daily with his mind, knowing that while his body does not have the same motor it once did, his heart and soul needs this game. '€œEverything'€™s in your head,'€ Jagr explained. '€œEverything'€™s all about confidence. When everything'€™s good, you feel good. You could play another 10 years. When everything go wrong, you can be 25 and feeling like you should quit. '€¦ When I look at some hockey games right now, there'€™s a lot of guys scoring goals and they don'€™t even look where they shooting. I think that might be my problem right now. I'€™m just looking for the perfect shot, and the goalie probably already know where I'€™m going to shoot. I'€™m probably going to have to change that and just shoot it. If I don'€™t know where I'€™m going to shoot, how is the goalie supposed to know? "I might be a different guy, but I need to be myself.  When I feel good, when I feel good about my shot, it doesn'€™t matter who'€™s in net. If I feel bad, it doesn'€™t really matter who is in the net. I'€™m not going to score. It'€™s not just in hockey, it'€™s everywhere else. It'€™s just life. It cannot be perfect. It cannot always be sunny. If it'€™s sunny too much, we would die because we won'€™t have enough water. '€œSee?'€ asks a smiling Jagr. '€œI teach you something, too.'€