Flyers' Jagr thankful for new chance in NHL

Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr (center) celebrates a goal with Claude Giroux (left) and Braydon Coburn against Toronto on Oct. 24.
Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr (center) celebrates a goal with Claude Giroux (left) and Braydon Coburn against Toronto on Oct. 24. (RON CORTES / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 24, 2011

UNIONDALE, N.Y. - For many, Thursday is a day of reflection, a day to give thanks.

Jaromir Jagr, however, has been reflective all season. And thankful.

He is thankful to be back in the NHL, thankful the Flyers rolled the dice on a past-his-prime winger, thankful to be on a line next to budding superstar Claude Giroux.

"At this point in my career, I never thought I'd play with somebody like him," Jagr, 39, said of Giroux the other day.

The Flyers are thankful, too. Thankful that Jagr, the onetime shaggy-haired heartthrob, has become a mentor to his young teammates and is still a highly productive player. Thankful he is so devoted to his sport that he sometimes skates and works out late at night at the Flyers' Voorhees practice facility - after working out with the team earlier in the day.

"We weren't too sure what to expect when he came here, but he's able to bring a lot to this team, both on and off the ice," Giroux said. "He makes you realize you have to go to the gym and put the time in to get better. He made me realize that, and not just me but the other young players."

Jagr has been the ultimate teammate. He is not the old Jagr, who liked being the center of attention. Now he just wants to fit in and help the younger players continue to blossom.

Maybe Jagr's persona has changed because he's 39 and doesn't take the games for granted anymore. Maybe it's changed because he was talking with teammate Alexei Cherepanov during a game in Russia three years ago, then the 19-year-old collapsed and died a few hours later. That, and losing friends who were killed in the September crash of a plane that carried a Russian hockey team, appears to have made Jagr more mellow, introspective.

Ask Jagr a question, and the Kladno, Czech Republic, native thinks for several seconds about how to communicate his thoughts in English. He speaks the language fluently, but he gathers his thoughts before answering, usually with a wide smile.

He doesn't try to be politically correct, doesn't try to shield himself from outsiders.

At almost 40, he is deeply religious and comfortable with himself.

So his answers are long, refreshingly candid, and from the heart.

Question: So what are you thankful for on Thanksgiving?

Long pause.

"I'm thankful for my life, and you appreciate it a lot more when you get older," he said. "And my parents. I always believed that without good parents who help you a lot, [you will struggle]. There are two different kinds of parents you can have. You can have parents that you're just a kid to them, and then there are parents who give up their lives for their kids to be successful and to have a better life than they had. And that was my parents.

"It was during the Communist years, and they kind of gave up their lives for me. And that's what I appreciate the most. If I had different parents, I wouldn't be here right now, I know that for sure. They did everything for me. I had everything I wanted - food, and that kind of stuff. They worked extra hard to make the money. They would drive me to the games all the time. My dad was at every practice till I was 15 years old."

Jagr, who spent the last three seasons playing in Russia, grew up on a farm in then-Communist Czechoslovakia, the son of a coal-mining administrator who doubled as a farmer. His parents still live in what has since split into the Czech Republic.

As for Jagr, he has been living with his girlfriend, 25, for the last six years.

Question: Do you want to be a father some day?

Jagr: "Of course I do. Because I had parents like that, you want to be the same thing for your kid, and I don't think I'm ready for that yet. I would have to give up hockey, and I love hockey too much."

Question: Do you want to play beyond this season?

Jagr: "It's too early to tell right now. Right now, I wait for the whole season and play it out. I just don't want to be somewhere where I can't help the team. I want to be a big part of the team. It's not about the points; it's about the whole team and how we going to do. . . . How we going to do in the playoffs? That's the hockey you want to play, in the playoffs. That's what I missed. The NHL playoffs and the other league [KHL] are totally different."

He said it would be difficult to retire from "something you love."

Told he could probably play until 70 if he was with the hometown team he owns in the Czech Republic (HC Kladno), Jagr laughed.

"Yeah, nobody's going to fire me," he said. "I like that."

Way it should be

Two of Jagr's linemates form his early years in Pittsburgh - Hall of Famers Joe Mullen and Ron Francis - are not surprised that Jagr (17 points in his first 18 games this season) is still going strong.

Mullen and Francis were veterans when Jagr broke into the league in 1990-91. Jagr said they were patient with him and played key roles in his development. Now Jagr wants to do the same to the young players on the Flyers.

Call it the NHL's version of Pay It Forward.

"That's part of his maturity, mentally," Mullen, a Flyers assistant, said this week. "He realized that at his young age, we were always willing to help him. We were the veteran guys, and we talked to him all the time. The three of us played on the same line, so it was an easy thing just for him to listen to us. And we always listened to him, too, so I think he liked that. And now that he's in our position, he wants to do it for other guys. I think that's great. I think that's the way it should be."

Francis, now Carolina's director of hockey operations, said Jagr was "misunderstood" in his early years. Back then, some viewed Jagr as a selfish player who cared more about his personal stats than the team's success.

"He wanted to be the best, and he wanted to be that way every night, and when it wasn't happening, at times he would get frustrated and get mad at himself," Francis said before the Hurricanes played the Flyers on Monday at the Wells Fargo Center. "And sometimes people misconstrued that as being selfish or pouting or what have you. But he was just a guy who wanted to be the best, who wanted to help the team win, and when things didn't go right, he was frustrated. It's just something Joey and I kind of worked with him on how to channel that the right way and stay positive.

"He had enough talent and smarts to figure it out on his own, but we tried to be there for him and sort of to build that trust so he knew he could talk to us and try to make him better."

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Jagr, whose 652 career goals place him 12th in NHL history, is a physical fitness addict, but he doesn't have the speed of his youth.

"We all lose a step as we get older," Mullen said. "He understands that, too. I'm sure he'd like to still do things at a higher pace than where he is now, but he's still that strong and that talented that he can get by with missing a step. He's smart out there. He knows the game, and he knows how to get open and how to work with guys. . . . You see guys like Brad Park at the end of his career when he lost a step, and he could still play because he could see things. He had the hockey sense."

Jagr said he wants to "be there" for Giroux and the other young players, like Francis and Mullen were there for him.

"He understands that at this point in his career he's not the guy you want to sort of carry you on his shoulders and lead the charge every night. But certainly he can be a part of that ride and part of that success," Francis said. "I don't know if that was the case early in his career."

"We had a lot of great years together and built a friendship," Francis added, "and it's great to see him back" in the NHL.

The Flyers, and their fans, are thankful, too.


Contact staff writer Sam Carchidi at scarchidi@phillynews.com

or on Twitter @BroadStBull

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