TORONTO — The numbers. It’s so hard to get past the numbers.
With Jaromir Jagr already keeping the company of legends and still playing in the NHL beyond his 43rd birthday, the temptation is to measure his immeasurable career by the weight of ever-growing scoring statistics.
At least from afar.
But inside the Florida Panthers dressing room, where another group of players has spent the last few weeks getting acquainted with the Czech winger, the respect is more about the here and now. The one thing Jagr’s peers simply can’t get over is his commitment to preparation.
“He’s 24/7 hockey and I don’t know how he does it mentally,” captain Willie Mitchell said before Thursday’s 4-1 win in Toronto.
On the surface, the two men have a fair bit in common. Both have enjoyed long careers and both have their name etched into the Stanley Cup twice. Mitchell will soon turn 38 and is clearly in the twilight of his days as a hockey player — a place Jagr has seemingly occupied for years.
Where they differ is how much time they’re willing to spend inside an arena.
“He’s got some unique habits,” said Mitchell. “I do it the other way. I leave the rink and I really disconnect because I find if I’m hockey, hockey, hockey all the time … then it burns me out.”
Jagr has long since passed 2,000 games of pro hockey without any hint of burnout.
Amazingly, he’s already played the equivalent of an entire season against five NHL teams: New York Islanders (107 games), New Jersey (99), Philadelphia (93), Buffalo (83) and Carolina (82).
Yet there he was on Thursday afternoon walking around the visitor’s dressing room at Air Canada Centre in ankle weights. About two hours before puck drop, with the lights inside the building dimmed low, Jagr quietly took to the ice wearing compression tights and tuque and skated around by himself.
While his rituals have become the stuff of legend since he returned from the KHL four years ago, they are constantly evolving. For example, Jagr no longer goes out for midnight skates like he did in Philadelphia.
“Of course you try to change, because the game is changing, your body is changing, you have to be smart enough to realize it,” he explained.
“Whatever you did two, three, four years ago, it’s not going to work this year. Because everything is changing. The defence is changing, the players are changing.
“You have to adjust to the game, the game isn’t going to adjust to you. If you don’t, you’re not going to play anymore.”
Jagr has repeatedly stated that he’d like to play until age 50. Some may have thought he was joking on Thursday morning when he responded to a question about his plans for next season by saying that his body had seven more years left, but it was actually one of the rare moments when he wasn’t smiling or laughing.
As long as there’s a team out there that wants him he’s not going anywhere soon.
That he hasn’t grown tired of the lifestyle, and the grind, while playing for five organizations during the last four seasons is in an accomplishment in itself. Mitchell doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be up to at age 43, but he can guarantee it’s “not playing hockey.”
“I have all of the respect in the world for what he’s doing,” he said.
“I’ll be on to the next chapter, on to the next career, that’s for sure. Re-inventing myself.”
At least that’s something Jagr would understand. If there’s any secret to his longevity it’s been the ability to constantly reinvent himself.
He went from a young superstar who took the NHL by storm with supernatural ability to a veteran that was forced to shed weight to handle the larger ice surfaces in Russia to a player that goes to greater lengths than any other to be ready for games.
“He’s 43,” said Panthers coach Gerard Gallant. “He’s not as fast and quick as he (once) was, but you see a lot of similarities. It’s hard to get the puck from him. When he got the puck down low, the defencemen have a tough time getting the puck off him. That’s what makes him a real good player.”
As long as he’s getting enough ice time to contribute, Jagr is willing to play anywhere. He’s clearly made an impact since landing in Florida from New Jersey and the Panthers are already talking about trying to sign him to a contract for next year.
His biggest influence has been on young linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov, who have each boosted their offensive production in 12 games together. Mitchell believes that Jagr’s aura is as much to do with that as anything else.
“If I was playing with Nick Lidstrom, I’d just feel that sense of don’t let this guy down, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer,” said Mitchell.
One year after finishing 29th overall, the Panthers find themselves in a playoff race. Even though they face long odds of catching Ottawa and Boston down the stretch, Jagr predicts “in a year or two, this team is going to be on top.”
He might even be around to see it.
For now, the Panthers are still adjusting to his quirks. He might be the only forward who gets two locker stalls on the road — one for his hockey equipment and another that houses ankle weights, a medicine ball, a seat belt (used to drag weights around) and a mullet wig that a fan gave him after his first game with the Panthers.
His new teammates chuckle when they see Jagr pacing around with various weights strapped to his body, but he’s taking their reaction in stride:
“When they turn 40, they’ll find out why I do it.”