When Teddy Richards began his new job as head equipment manager for the Florida Panthers, one of his first tasks was meeting with Jaromir Jagr and learning his preferences.
It took 90 minutes.
Inside the Panthers dressing room at BB&T Center, there’s no mistaking where Jagr sits. It looks like someone put a hockey equipment store in a blender and poured it out in the corner. While his teammates get one stall apiece, Jagr has two, better to house multiple pairs of skates and gloves, along with his weighted vests, ankle weights and three separate toiletry-type bags that Jagr keeps at his side.
The NHL’s oldest player by nearly half a decade, Jagr, 44, is best not confined to any sort of typical space. From his out-of-the-box workouts, to the constant tinkering with equipment, to his willingness to regrow his signature mullet, to his remarkable longevity, there’s only one Jaromir Jagr.
"He's definitely a different bird," teammate Shawn Thornton said. "He’s got his own way of doing things, but it’s obviously working for him because he’s still doing it."
As well as ever, too. Jagr, who scored 27 goals in 2015-16, will turn 45 in February. For the first time, his number of NHL seasons without playing for the Penguins (12) eclipses the number he played with them (11). That much becomes apparent when you talk to Jagr about his Pittsburgh days.
“My fans are already dead or old like me,” Jagr said. “There are new fans. Half of them probably don’t even know I played there.”
Jagr will make his first of this season’s two Pittsburgh appearances Tuesday. The Penguins, commemorating their 50th season this year, have chosen not to celebrate their two early 1990s Stanley Cup teams with Jagr and his Panthers in town, preferring instead to do it Saturday, Dec. 3, against the Red Wings.
One of the three most important players in franchise history along with co-owner Mario Lemieux and captain Sidney Crosby, Jagr couldn’t care less. He is anything but wistful when it comes to his time in Pittsburgh.
“It’s not about me; it’s about the Pittsburgh Penguins,” Jagr said. “If I’m not in town, it’s fine. I’m just a very little piece of the history, a very little piece. So many great players have played for that organization. I’m just a little piece. I don’t know why they would adjust their schedule to me. I’m not that important.”
‘I thought I was going to Philly’
Four teams picked before the Penguins drafted Jagr in 1990. Speaking this summer, former general manager Craig Patrick said he heard Jagr was telling teams he would not come to North America immediately. Patrick encountered no such issues with Jagr, who said he’d be there on Day 1 to play with Mario Lemieux.
Jagr played coy Monday following a Panthers practice when asked about the accuracy of Patrick’s assertion.
“I don’t remember what I said,” Jagr answered. “I don’t remember what I said yesterday. How am I supposed to remember that?”
Jagr did remember another tale from his draft year. He said he expected to play for the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted fourth, and not the Penguins, who drafted fifth. A European scout had watched him closely, and he knew the Flyers GM at the time, Bobby Clarke, liked him a lot.
Clarke was fired two months before the draft, and the Flyers’ draft strategy changed.
“One-hundred percent I thought I was going to Philly,” Jagr said. “They had talked to me and said, ‘We’re taking you.’ I was surprised when they didn’t call my name.”
The Penguins did, of course, and the rest is history.
The back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 were impressive enough — only the Red Wings have won consecutive Cups since — but Jagr thought the Penguins of the 1990s could have been even more dominant.
“If Mario wouldn’t have had the back problems, I think Pittsburgh would have won three or four more Cups,” Jagr said. “Because he was dominating the league so much. Back then, one guy could make that big of a difference.”
While the beginning of Jagr’s tenure here could not possibly have gone better — he averaged 38 goals and 90 points before winning the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer four consecutive years — it came apart at the seams toward the end.
In a Post-Gazette story from Dec. 13, 2000, Lemieux confirmed that Jagr had made a pair of trade requests. Jagr was frustrated with his poor start and believed new surroundings could help him.
“I wasn't happy with the way I was playing, and I thought that maybe the change would help me," Jagr said back then. "I wanted to get back where I was [in previous seasons]." Lemieux, of course, denied both requests, saying, “There's only one Jagr in the world, and you don't trade the best player in the world."
Asked last week about his trade requests and desire to leave Pittsburgh, Jagr seemed to take issue with the idea that he wanted out.
“People believe whatever they want to believe. They never been there,” Jagr said. “They never been involved in it. It was only me and Craig Patrick that was there in that room.
“I know the truth, Craig knows the truth and God knows the truth. That’s all that matters.”
Jagr declined to elaborate on what was actually said in that room with Patrick, but he did say he thought it made sense for the Penguins to have traded him.
Coming off a postseason where he scored just twice in 16 games, Jagr said he thought it was more important for the Penguins to try and retain their second line of Alex Kovalev, Martin Straka and Robert Lang.
“I felt like we needed those three guys to be competitive and get into the Final,” Jagr said. “They were more important than me. I didn’t have a great playoffs. Mario just came back. We didn’t have to have a face of the franchise because Mario was a lot better than me. There was no reason to keep me.”
Finding that Floridian fit
Shane Harper remembers watching old VHS tapes of Jagr’s top goals whenever he was little. Harper is now 27. “It’s hard to believe that’s still the same guy,” Harper said. “I feel like I was so young watching that.” Jagr has the eyes and ears of Florida’s talented kids, and he seems to have found the perfect situation in South Florida. He does what he wants, when he wants and how he wants to do it; nobody seems to care. The Panthers are thrilled to have someone who commands attention and respect.
During one recent shooting drill at a morning skate before a game against the Red Wings, Jagr slipped out of line, grabbed a seat atop the boards and watched. But don’t think Jagr is any sort of loner who detests his teammates. It’s quite the opposite. Jagr routinely jokes with Florida’s younger players, even if they are usually in awe the first time they skate alongside him.
“He’s not an alien,” said Upper St. Clair’s Vincent Trocheck, a center for the Panthers. “He’s one of our teammates. He’s a hockey player. He’s just like one of the guys. He’s not any different.”
“He’s just another guy in the room,” defenseman Aaron Ekblad added. “Obviously he’s done great things with his career. We think of him as just another guy. He goes out and works his [butt] off every night to be a great player. It’s definitely great to see. We feed off that as younger guys. We see a guy that old working that hard. It’s definitely inspiring.”
Jagr’s preparation for games and practice is something else. He'll shoot a medicine ball into a wall. He loves working with a cable machine but instead of normal chest fly exercises, Jagr has affixed a hockey stick to one end of the machine, enabling him to shoot with a massive amount of resistance.
It’s not uncommon for Jagr to practice with a weight vest, weights on his ankles or weights in his skates.
“He does stuff I’ve never seen anyone else do,” said Penguins minor league winger Garrett Wilson, who played with Jagr last year in Florida.
Strength and conditioning coach Tommy Powers is on call 24 hours a day, for any of Jagr’s 11 p.m. workout whims, but Powers loves it. He gives Jagr the freedom to do his thing, helping find new exercises when asked or simply providing a willing training partner.
“He never cuts corners on anything, which is one of the reasons I think he’s been so successful,” Powers said. “He knows what he needs to do, and he knows his body.”
And its energy. One of Jagr’s secrets is involving what Powers called the “spiritual” aspect of his routine —yoga, meditation and mindfulness. Jagr believes in opening up his chakras, adhering to an Indian religious concept where seven energy centers are located along the spine.
“I don’t see that from anyone else,” Powers said. “I’ve never seen someone encompass all those different aspects into their routines, training and their belief system. For him to be able to do that and bring it all together, that speaks to why he’s still playing at 44 years old.”
Too busy looking ahead to look behind
The last time Jagr spoke to Lemieux was 2011, when Jagr was returning to the NHL from Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League. Jagr said four teams showed interest in him — the Penguins, Canadiens, Flyers and Red Wings — but Pittsburgh didn’t provide enough of an opportunity to produce.
“They didn’t think highly of me,” Jagr said of the Penguins. “They thought I was going to be some guy for the third or fourth line. I still believed I could play that game, even though I was 39.
“The [Sidney] Crosby line had been together. The [Evgeni] Malkin line, [Jordan] Staal. I would be maybe on the third or fourth line, maybe have 10 minutes of ice time. In 10 minutes, I don’t think I would be able to do something.”
So Jagr signed with the Flyers, opening another chapter to his career that has included five teams since 2011.
Still it’s the Penguins with whom Jagr is most often associated. He played 806 games for them, no more than 277 for anyone else.
Yet if Jagr is worrying about his place in franchise history, or whether his No. 68 will one day hang from the rafters at PPG Paints Arena, he isn’t letting on.
“It’s not up to me,” Jagr said. “Twenty or 30 years from now, if someone comes to the arena and knows that Jaromir Jagr played here, it would be nice. But it’s not in my hands.”
Jagr is equally unconcerned with the boos he receives here, something that has diminished over time but still happens with a group that believes he quit on the Penguins.
“If I would get booed from the fans because I didn’t try hard or I was a bad player, I would care. Because I didn’t try hard enough and I’d feel guilty,” Jagr said. “But somebody booing me because they heard something? And they don’t know the truth?
“When I played in Pittsburgh, I gave my best. Everybody who played with me knew. I practiced harder than anybody else. I was on the ice all the time. I love the game and wanted to be the best I could be every night. So if they’re booing me for that, I’m fine with that because I know I don’t deserve it.”
Jagr could hear boos in Pittsburgh for years to come. He has shown no signs of slowing down.
Panthers head coach Gerard Gallant has created a policy where Jagr can rest whenever he wants — games, practices, multiple of each, doesn’t matter. But Jagr refuses to participate. He even took it upon himself to shed about 15 pounds this summer.
“I try to tell him to take a day off once in awhile, but he thinks if he takes a day off he’ll have to retire. He wants to keep playing,” Gallant said. “In his head, he has to go at it every day. He has to do something every day. That’s the way he prepares himself. He believes that.”
“He told me the other day he’s never felt better,” linemate Aleksander Barkov said. “He lost some weight. He’s too fast now. He’s 44. He’s fast and strong and skilled. He still can play the game at that level.”
Some of Jagr’s former Penguins teammates believe — and Gallant hinted at this — that Jagr keeps playing because he knows nothing else and is fearful of what will happen to him if he’s no longer a professional hockey player. There’s some validity to that, Jagr admitted. He’s not married and doesn’t have children, meaning hockey is the biggest thing Jagr has going.
But pinning Jagr’s longevity to fear discounts how much he truly loves what he does for a living.
“There’s no rules that you can only play hockey from 18-35,” Jagr said. “There’s no rules that say you have to live from 0-70. If you pass by 70, you’re already dead. There’s no rules.”
Truth is, Jagr has made it this far because he doesn’t think too much about the past or future. He’s consumed by the present, stuffed into multiple dressing room stalls, complete with a mullet dangling down that he takes on the road and a stuffed, rubber rat that he keeps on top of the stall.
“I don’t want to think about life after hockey, but you still have to find something that interests you, to make you happy,” Jagr said. “Why try to go and find something if I already have it? I still can do it. Any person who loves their job is going to answer the same way. If I didn’t like it, I don’t think I would play right now. It’s impossible to hate something and keep doing it.”
Jason Mackey: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @JMackeyPG
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