Jaromir Jagr: ‘I’ll work every day’ to play until 50 years old

Watch as Jaromir Jagr records an assist to tie Mark Messier for points in a career.

Tuesday night was a big one for Jaromir Jagr. It’s not often an NHLer matches an all-time great offensive stat that has roots in the high-scoring 1980s.

Jagr, whose career began in 1990-91 (and about five years before his current Florida Panthers centreman was born), pulled even with Mark Messier on the NHL’s all-time points list at 1,887. He did it in his 23rd NHL season (Messier did it in 25) and 94 games faster than Messier.

In his post-game interview Jagr was business as usual, talking about what the game situation was when he tied Messier (Florida was behind by one at the time).

To Jagr, the Panthers are a team six points out of the playoffs right now, and one that can’t afford to lose any games. So the 4-3 shootout win over Buffalo was the big takeaway.

Celebrating such an incredible career achievement is to be done in retirement.

“You know maybe when I retire I’ll look back at what I did and maybe I’m going to think about it a little more,” he said. “But right now I just enjoy every moment I can to have a chance to play in this league and try and do everything to stay in this league. I love it so much.”

At 44 years old and less than two months away from another birthday, Jagr is one of the oldest players to ever play in the NHL. But he’s still got a long way to go to beat Gordie Howe’s record of 52 years old.

With Jagr, we might wonder how many points he’d have now if he didn’t leave to play in the KHL for three seasons from 2008 to 2011, not to mention three work stoppages.

Of course, Howe had eight years and six WHA seasons between his first NHL retirement and his return as a Hartford Whaler in 1979-80.

A 52-year-old NHLer. Most of the long-tenured players pack it in by age 39, 40 or 41. Most retire long before that, on average.

Chris Chelios endeavoured to play until he was 50, but was two years short when the game had passed him by. Chelios played 35 games over his final two seasons with Detroit and Atlanta.

In those last two years of Chelios’ career from 2008-2010 the NHL game was much different than it had been five years earlier.

The 2004-05 lockout resulted in a quicker, less obstructed game and sprung such new talents as Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. It was the beginning of a high-tempo league that keeps picking up pace and isn’t really a place to be chasing an “oldest player” record.

And this makes what Jagr is doing all the more unbelievable: he’s not just putting around out there. He led the Florida Panthers in scoring with 66 points last year, when the franchise had its best-ever regular season. He’s not on that pace this year with 19 points in 33 games, but he is third in team scoring and his centre, Aleksander Barkov, is one of the best young two-way pivots in the game today.

Jagr has changed the way he plays the game too, relying mostly on strength and positioning (smarts) to create space for his teammates, rather than dipsy-doodling around defenders for highlight-reel plays the way he could 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

He signs contracts one year at a time now to reassess at the end of each season, but he’s never shied away from the fact he would like to play until he’s 50 years old. He wants you to know, he’s not kidding.

“When I said I want to play until 50 everybody laughed at me, but I’ll work every day to do it,” he said on Tuesday.

There’s no joking about his dedication to fitness and staying in game-shape. He used to have a key to the Philadelphia Flyers‘ practice facility when he played for the organization. In this great Oral History of Jaromir Jagr by Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford, New York Rangers backup goaltender Kevin Weekes spoke about Jagr’s dedication to practice after practice when they were teammates from 2005 until 2007.

“We’d finish, I’d work out, he’d work out, but what I didn’t know is then at night he was coming back to the rink. He’d drive back out to the practice rink [which was about 45 minutes away] and practise by himself. And none of us knew this. We had no idea.”

Let’s wonder about more milestones.

If Jagr does play until he is 50, he’ll have to endure five more seasons after this one. Say he averages 40 points a season plus another 30 this year: that’s 230 for a grand total of 2117, and still 740 short of Gretzky’s record — but hey, someone will finally have more points than Gretzky has assists (1963).

Maybe the record we should wonder about is the all-time goals record, though. Still 46 short of Howe’s 801 for second on the goals list, Jagr faces a steep uphill battle to score 139 more markers in his career to tie Gretzky’s record of 894.

If Jagr scored even 15 more this season he’d still need to average 24.8 goals over the following five seasons to get to 894.

There’s probably a slim chance Jagr can play long enough to catch Gretzky’s goals record or Howe’s age record, and it has as much to do with how he adapts to the quickening NHL as it does to his fitness. He won’t get any faster and the training won’t get any easier — but the league around him will keep accelerating.

“In my opinion I think I’m better than I was 15 years ago, but everybody else is a lot, lot better,” Jagr said at last season’s All-Star Game. “The game is quicker, guys are in very good shape, they’re working out every day. They’re young, they’re quick. When you look at it on TV and you see the game just only five years ago it’s a totally different game.

“The game has changed. That’s why you have to be a different player than you were 20 years ago. If you were quick and not strong enough it doesn’t really matter because they hold you, they grab you, you couldn’t go anywhere. Now because they start calling the penalties you have to be quick. You don’t even have to be strong anymore.”

But this is perhaps a unique situation — and certainly a unique individual.

To hear him talk to Sportsnet about retiring, you realize he wasn’t celebrating Tuesday’s milestone because he doesn’t think it’s close to being his last one.

“The time between when I quit hockey and I die, I want it to be the shortest,” he told Rutherford. “It’s not going to be as exciting, that time. So as long as I can play, that’s what I’m doing. If I can play ’til I die, that’s what I will do. What else are you gonna do? Even if you retire, you will still have to go work out, and maybe harder than you do when you play hockey because you don’t want to look ugly and fat. At least I don’t want to.”

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