Hockey welcomes Jaromir Jagr’s record book assault – but it wasn’t always this easy

Rory Boylen
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Jaromir Jagr keeps moving up in the record books.

The 41-year-old’s goal in the second period of New Jersey’s 5-2 victory over Ottawa was the 693rd of his career, pushing him past Steve Yzerman and into sole possession of No. 8 on the list. It was also his 122nd game-winner, which set a new all-time record and passed Gordie Howe.

Jagr is having his best season since returning to the NHL from the KHL in 2011. He’s leading the Devils with 12 goals and 29 points in 35 games and isn’t yet done moving up all-time rankings. Jagr is now one goal behind Mark Messier for No. 7 on the all-time goals list and six points behind Mario Lemieux on the all-time scoring list.

Since his return, Jagr’s image has improved not just because of the power of nostalgia, but because he has expressed his passion and dedication to the game like never before. He’s always had his fans and detractors, but the latter group hasn’t been as vocal in his second tour. Rather than being a divisive superstar, Jagr has connected with most fans who recognize the rarity of what they are seeing before them. This kind of greatness doesn’t come around often and, outside of Teemu Selanne, it will be a number of years before anyone else reaches these offensive highs again.

NHL fans weren’t always this warm and fuzzy about Jagr, of course. The skeletons in his past will always linger in certain sects of the hockey world and opinions were divided about his legacy when he first left the NHL after the 2007-08 season.

Stories and perceptions of 41-year-old Jagr are all glowing, but here is how he was viewed five and a half years ago. This story was written by former THN staffer Sam McCaig on May 2, 2008, days before the Rangers would be eliminated by the Penguins in what was expected to be Jagr’s final NHL season.

Dear Jaromir: Thanks for the memories…or good riddance?

That’s pretty much how it breaks down when fans discuss the possibility that the 2008 playoffs may be the final NHL action for Rangers superstar Jaromir Jagr.

Because when it comes to Jagr, not many people sit on the fence.

You either love him or you hate him, and you have a multitude of reasons to back up your stance.

Depending whom you ask, Jagr has either been the NHL’s best player since Wayne and Mario (right, early ’90s Pens fans and current Rangers fans?) or, conversely, the worst team-killing cancer the game has ever seen (right, Caps fans?).

Jagr has conceded he pretty much tuned out during his two-and-a-half (pre-lockout) seasons in Washington, claiming he was misled by ownership and that he didn’t receive the supporting cast he was promised. So, in response, he didn’t overexert himself or turn in much of an effort in the latter stages of his D.C. tenure.

And, no, that’s not the hallmark of a great team leader. Even back in his days in Pittsburgh, a me-first attitude sometimes reared its ugly head – on a team helmed by Mario Lemieux, no less – earning the wrath of some hometown fans and the all-out hatred of hardcore fans who want their NHL stars to be cut from the Steve Yzerman cloth of supreme humility and sublime ability. (Never mind that ego and the confidence to be great go hand-in-hand in sports.)

And Jagr, ever unapologetic, was not one to try to salvage his image by submitting to media pundits or the public’s demands.

He was, is and presumably always will be, his own man – as well as one of the least-understood superstars the NHL has ever seen. When basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar retired after a 20-year career in the NBA, one columnist wrote an open letter entitled “Kareem, We Hardly Knew You.” That’s the way I feel about Jagr.

Like Kareem, Jagr is one of the greatest players of his generation, as well as one of the greatest in his sport, ever, period. And while we’ve had glimpses into his personality and what makes him tick, there are few who know what really goes in his formerly gloriously-mulleted head.

Obviously, along with the requisite skill, size and strength, he had the ambition, drive and desire to be the best. 

Just not all the time. 

The circumstances had to be just right, or Jagr went from frustrating opponents with a dazzling display of skill to frustrating teammates with a puzzling display of malaise.

Even post-lockout, we’ve seen both sides (or more accurately, two of the many sides) of Jagr. Coming out of the lockout, some in the hockey community were convinced he was done, that his deterioration in Washington (where he still was a point-a-game player, it should be pointed out) was just a hint of things to come.

Instead, in a happy situation in New York, the 2005-06 season saw Jagr score the second-most goals (54) and third-most points (123) in his career en route to winning the Lester B. Pearson Award (voted by the players) as league MVP. In 2006-07, he piled up 96 points, plus another 11 in 10 playoff games. Jagr also hasn’t missed a game, in body or mind, since the lockout.

Well, check that. This year, it seems, he was pacing himself in the regular season – 25 goals and 71 points – so as to save himself for a productive and extended playoff. That’s what he appears to be saying, anyway, if you can decipher the Jagr-speak (as told to New York Post writer and THN correspondent Larry Brooks between Games 3 and 4 of the Rangers-Penguins series):

“You have to understand, there are a million people who can criticize me for whatever reason, but if you look at hockey history, how many players stay at the same kind of level at my age for 80 games?” said Jagr, who turned 36 in January. “It’s not that you don’t want to, of course I wish I could play every game like the playoffs, but it is impossible to stay at that level for 20 years.”

And he went on:

“When a guy gets older, you have to pick the time that’s important for you. You can let people criticize you for not being great, but you know you’re going to be good. Maybe I would have been able – I’m not sure – maybe I could get 100 points and 50 goals, but then nobody could guarantee I would be healthy for the playoffs. What if I hit the wall? Then it would all be for nothing.

“I know how I have to play. Maybe people won’t agree with me. I understand that. But how many people have been in the same position? Not many. You have to do it night after night for such a long time and when you don’t produce to the level everyone expects, you’re bad, but if you do, that’s (just) what you are.

“There’s no (way to win). It’s fine with me. I love it. I love to be on the ice. I’m not going to change. That’s what drives me.”

It was a rare public and passionate address by Jagr, a rare self-explanation by a player who nearly always has let his actions speak for him, for better or for worse.

Jagr followed up his words with something that hockey fans are more accustomed to getting from him: a virtuoso two-goal, three-point performance in New York’s 3-0 victory over Pittsburgh in a must-win Game 4. It came in what might be the last game he ever plays in New York.
Unless he changes his mind.

Or not.

Only Jagr knows. If even he does.