They sit next to each other in the Devils’ dressing room, but Scott Gomez and Jaromir Jagr are worlds apart.
Gomez loves it. Jagr … doesn’t.
“I didn’t forget how to play hockey,” Gomez said Wednesday, minutes after the team’s pre-game skate in preparation for the Calgary Flames. “Not for one second did I question I knew how to play. Should I be surprised? Not at all.”
Since the calendar flipped to 2015, the 35-year-old centre has 16 points in 21 games. He looks revitalized, now playing with Jagr and Tuomo Ruutu. After Tuesday’s optional skate at the team’s practice facility, New Jersey uberboss Lou Lamoriello smiled at Gomez’s rise from the NHL ashes.
“Up until a month ago, I could say I was surprised,” Lamoriello said. “Now, I’m not. He earned it, he worked at it, paying at his own expense to be here.”
Moments later, in a small scrum with reporters, Jagr said, despite the fact he “loves” the Devils’ organization, he would like to be traded. (Full disclosure: I was not writing down his quotes, so credit to Tom Gulitti of The Record, The Star-Ledger’s Rich Chere and NHL.com’s Mike Morreale for the exact words.)
“If I stay here and we’re not going to have a chance to make the playoffs, I don’t think I’m going to play at all. And I still like to play,” the Future Hall of Famer said, adding he saw what would happen once Peter DeBoer was fired. “I knew from the first day … I knew it. There is a history, so I knew it.”
Jagr would not elaborate on “the history,” but he played briefly in Washington with Adam Oates, who now coaches the forwards. Jagr played 24:55 in DeBoer’s last game. His highest under the new regime is 18:37, which was the first game Lamoriello ran the bench. He played 12:13 on Saturday and 12:49 on Monday.
Asked if he would talk to the coaches about it, Jagr replied, “Do you think it’s going to change anything? I don’t think so.”
For his part, Gomez said, “I love playing for Oates … all the offensive guys do.” (Well, all except for one.)
According to one coach, Oates made an adjustment in Gomez’s game, telling him not to swing low in his own zone to make up for a lack of footspeed. Starting higher up the ice has helped his numbers.
“At 35, I am still learning,” Gomez said. “Isn’t that what it’s supposed to be about?”
He says the turnaround began at the end of last season, while a Florida Panther. Realizing this could be it for his NHL career, he poured everything into those final few games. He said teammates told him, “You’re not done,” so he went all-out in the summer, seeking out Vladimir Bure, who once worked as the Devils’ fitness consultant.
“It was the Russian Communist mentality,” Gomez smiled. “Skating two times a day, six days a week. All the time I believed I was going to make it.”
“I understand everything anyone can go through in this game. I’ve been there. People say, ‘Do you regret being in Montreal?’ No. Montreal was awesome. Everything I went through, I learned from. There is not anything anyone can say to me about hockey where I can’t say, ‘I’ve been there.’”
“If I quit, how could I look anyone in the eyes and say that?”
Asked if there was anything he would do over again, Gomez said, “Yeah, I probably should have asked this one girl out in high school. She was at a party, my friend asked her first and they stayed together a few years. Later I found out she liked me.”
Turning serious, he said, “I’ve never been one to look back.”
(This was a day for wild quotes. Jagr, asked why things were going badly for him, replied, “Why is gravity keeping us on this Earth?”)
Gomez was effusive in his praise of Oates and Scott Stevens, former coaches DeBoer and Dave Barr for letting him stay and practice, and, of course, Lamoriello. They remained close after the player left New Jersey as a free agent in 2007. During one New Jersey/Montreal Hockey Night in Canada broadcast, Lamoriello sought out Gomez post-game to see how the player was doing in a particularly low moment. So, when it was time for one final shot, the first call was easy.
Both men say they have not discussed next season. But, his future is more secure than Jagr’s, especially in New Jersey. After finishing his commentary, Jagr walked toward the workout room, then stopped, turned around and said he understood why other players were getting more time.
As a Devil, he is done. Gomez, against all odds, isn’t.