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CORAL SPRINGS, FLA.—On the rare days that Jaromir Jagr feels like talking, there are few subjects that are off limits.
Want to know who is his favourite wrestler?
“I like the Rock,” Jagr growls in a deep, gravelly voice. “I’ve seen all of his movies.”
Was he inspired by Serena Williams and Roger Federer both winning Australian Open titles at 35?
“I should inspire them,” he says with a laugh. “I’m 45.”
Which brings us to the one question Jagr won’t answer: How much longer will he continue to be an inspiration on the ice?
The Florida Panthers’ ageless winger, who turned 45 on Wednesday, is already the oldest athlete in a major U.S. team sport. More than half the players in the NHL —including his two linemates —weren’t even born when Jagr won his first Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
George Bush was in the White House at the time. The first George Bush. That was 1991.
Still, Jagr insists there’s no finish line in sight —and not only because his sight isn’t what it used to be.
“I’ll go to 55,” he told nj.com last month. “Because I feel so good, I’ll go 55.”
Was he kidding? Jagr won’t say. But what seems certain is he won’t be stopping anytime soon, and that makes his annual visit to Southern California —for games with the Ducks on Friday and Kings on Saturday —less a farewell tour and more a chance to appreciate a player who has defied time.
In 23 seasons with seven teams, Jagr has amassed 1,899 points, second only to Wayne Gretzky on the all-time list and good enough to make him one of six active players named to the NHL’s all-time top 100 at last month’s All-Star Game. Entering Wednesday’s game in San Jose, he also ranked in the top five all-time in goals (759), assists (1,140) and games played (1,683) —numbers that would be even better had Jagr not lost all or parts of three seasons to work stoppages and spent three others playing in Russia.
Yet he hardly looks his age on the ice. Last season, his first full one in Florida, he became the oldest player in NHL history to reach 50 points, score at least 25 goals and lead his team in scoring. Even his teammates sometimes seem surprised by the grey streaks in his shoulder-length hair and the specks of white in his beard.
“When he takes he’s helmet off, you’re like, ‘Wow, he’s the Tom Brady of hockey,’ “ assistant coach Dave Barr said of Jagr, a former MVP and five-time NHL scoring leader. “He’s an icon. And he’s been an icon for years.”
So, while it’s been a decade since Jagr scored 50 goals in a season, only three right wings topped his 66 points last season. And he has appeared in each of the Panthers’ first 54 games this season, earning a $ 1.5 million bonus in his one-year contract.
Ponce de Leon couldn’t find the fountain of youth in Florida but it appears as if Jaromir Jagr did.
“It amazes me every day because just when you think he can’t do it anymore, he has a phenomenal game,” said Florida Coach Tom Rowe, who played with a 51-year-old Gordie Howe in Howe’s final NHL season. “You need to be with Jags every day and watch what he does. He spends an incredible amount of time exercising.”
There may be more than exercise and hard work fuelling his longevity. Jagr’s thick whiskers, wild mane and piercing eyes give him the look of a mystic, so divine intervention can’t be discounted … especially considering the half-dozen empty plastic bottles labelled “holy water” strewn about Jagr’s locker at the team’s practice rink, or with the hand-painted likenesses of sacred figures from the Eastern Orthodox Church gracing his corner locker.
Jagr, who reportedly visits a church before most games, became more open about his faith after his three-season stint in Russia, where Orthodox Christianity is the largest religion.
Then there’s Jagr’s experience and intelligence. Never an elegant skater, he has clearly lost a step or three and now plods rather than glides down the ice. But he’s found ways to make up for that.
“The whole key is you have to be able to keep the puck,” he says. “When you have the puck, you decide (at) what kind of speed the game is going to be played. If you don’t have it, they’re deciding. So I have to be able to hold the puck.”
It’s a philosophy Jagr has emphasized with his two young linemates, centre Aleksander Barkov and left wing Jonathan Huberdeau.
“He teaches us a lot of things that maybe some other guys couldn’t. He’s been around so many years,” said Huberdeau, who returned from a pre-season Achilles’ injury to score two goals and pick up three assists in his first three games with Jagr.
“I know it won’t last forever,” Huberdeau said. “I’m sure someday he’s going to stop playing. I’m just saying, mathematically, he’s going to have to at some point.”
The comment comes off sounding more like a question than a statement, as if the 23-year-old Canadian is looking for assurances that his aging teammate, who scored 93 goals in the NHL before Huberdeau was born, will indeed retire first.
So, for Huberdeau’s sake, the forbidden topic is finally broached: How much longer, Jagr is asked, are you going to play?
And with that he smiles and waves the conversation to a close.
“That’s a question,” he says brusquely, “I’m not going to answer.”