By: Will Burchfield
It’s no secret that Jaromir Jagr wanted to join the Red Wings when he returned to the NHL in 2011 following a three-year stint in the KHL.
On Wednesday he explained why.
“I was obviously a different player seven, eight years ago, but I always wanted to play with (Pavel) Datsyuk. Back then I could play first line, so I felt like it would be something special to be able to play with him for a whole season,” Jagr said.
Why Datsyuk? Just because he was a heck of a player?
Jagr nodded and smiled, as if it couldn’t be more obvious.
“Yes,” he said. “That’s right.”
And he nearly got his wish.
“After I came back from Russia there was a big chance. I was pretty close. There were two teams, Pittsburgh and Detroit, and I could sign before the free agency (period) because I was coming from Europe,” said Jagr, whose Flames are in Detroit to take on the Wings on Wednesday night.
But he couldn’t reach a deal with either team and wound up signing with the Flyers instead. At the spry age of 39, Jagr put up 54 points in 73 games.
It’s a decision he said he doesn’t regret.
Now 45, Jagr has played for six teams in the past seven years. He has ambitions to play until he’s 50, but admits it’s harder to find work than it once was. He spent much of this offseason as a free agent until the Flames signed him just days before the season began.
“Right now I don’t have really much teams to choose from. I’m waiting for them to call me. It’s a different strategy,” Jagr said with a self-deprecating grin.
The eight-time All-Star is one of two active NHL players over the age of 40. (Matt Cullen is the other.) With his intense work ethic, Jagr brings to mind former Red Wing Chris Chelios, who played until he was 49.
“I think me and Cheli, both of us, didn’t mind hard work. I heard he was a crazy hard-working guy (Sean Avery can attest), and I love practice. I think the game is just a pleasure, so you have to work a lot harder (in practice) so you can enjoy the game. … I think Cheli was the same way. That’s the key if you want to play for a long time — you wouldn’t mind to practice hard.”
On top of that, Jagr said, it’s crucial to evolve as time takes its toll.
“I don’t think Cheli’s and my game later in the career was dependent on speed. You have to have something else very good to be able to play in this league, because if you’re depending on speed you’re going to lose it…and they’re going to replace (you) with somebody quicker. That’s why you have to have something nobody has,” Jagr said.
The secret for Jagr is his ability to protect the puck, which stems in large part from his big, powerful backside.
“Thats why you gotta eat a lot of muffins!” he said.
In sizing up Jagr, especially in his early days, it’s hard not to think of Anthony Mantha. Few players have that combination of size, speed and hands.
Asked if he sees some of his younger self in the 23-year-old Mantha, Jagr said, “The game has changed so much. Right now, to have good size is kind of a disadvantage. To be big and strong is not a huge advantage anymore. You see the smaller and quicker guys, the nifty guys, dominating this league. But he’s a great player — very fast and he’s got the size.”