Jaromir Jagr (Photo by Martin Rose/Getty Images)
The Czech legend and the American phenom are having great tournaments at opposite ends of their career. But thanks to modern training routines, both athletes can compete and thrive against competition years away from them.
As we pause briefly from the Stanley Cup playoffs, let's turn our eyes over to Europe for a second, where the World Championship is down to four teams. Canada plays the Czech Republic in one semifinal, while Russia and the United States renew hostilities on the other side of the bracket.
If Canada hopes to move on, they'll have to stop an ageless icon. Meanwhile, the Russians will have their hands full with a powerful teenager.
What do Jaromir Jagr and Jack Eichel have in common? Both are defying their age in having great tournaments so far.
In Jagr, you have a 43-year-old veteran who played 77 NHL games before decamping for Europe, where he has represented the host Czechs with his usual flair. Jagr posted two goals and three points in a 5-3 quarterfinal victory over the Finns (who live for these tournaments) and he didn't do it as a perimeter player. The sure-fire Hall of Famer was actually the net-front presence for the Czechs and otherwise used his big frame to shield the puck from Finland's checkers the same way he has done for decades.
Famous for his commitment to fitness, Jagr is still a thriving hockey player because he pushes himself in training. It's the same type of drive that allowed Chris Chelios to play in the NHL well into his forties, but Jagr doesn't look like he's going to be any less effective next season or the one after that. He was nearly a point-per-gamer player with the Florida Panthers in 20 post-deadline games and, sadly, still finished sixth in scoring in New Jersey, despite the trade.
There have been others who thrived well into their forties, but it's a really short list. Gordie Howe is obviously the gold standard, finished top-10 in WHA scoring at 48 and again at 50, but that example should also give you an idea of what kind of club Jagr is joining.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have Team USA's Eichel. Just 18 years old, he's the top-scoring center on the American roster, with linemates Brock Nelson and Trevor Lewis rounding out the top-three producers on the squad.
And remember, this kid has never played an NHL game. At 6-foot-1, 192 pounds, Eichel is big, but he's going to get bigger. That "man strength" that youngsters supposedly need to compete in the pros has clearly come early for the consensus No. 2 pick in the 2015 draft and his season with Boston University has been a big help, as did his two-year stint with the U.S. National Team Development Program.
Both programs emphasize weight room work over game repetition and Eichel is a perfect example of what that can produce. His fellow B.U. freshman Brandon Hickey, a Calgary Flames draft pick, also put on a staggering amount of muscle mass this season by crushing time in the Terriers' weight room.
So perhaps it's not surprising that Eichel has his Americans in the semifinal. If anything, this is becoming the new normal. Seth Jones and Jacob Trouba, two other NTDP alums, made NHL impacts as teenaged defensemen, while Jeff Skinner – who played major junior with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers – parlayed his summer work with trainer Gary Roberts into a Calder Trophy at 18 with the Carolina Hurricanes.
Whether it's Jagr on one end or Eichel on the other, players seem to be making their impacts last longer at the highest levels these days. That's great for roster competition and hockey in general.