VOORHEES, N.J. – When Jaromir Jagr left three years ago to play in Russia, he thought his NHL career was over.
At 39, Jagr is back and with something to prove.
Jagr surprised the league when he signed a one-year contract this summer with the Philadelphia Flyers, trying to win a Stanley Cup and play at an all-star level even at an age when most players have considered retirement.
“There’s probably a lot of people wondering if I still can play. It’s fine with me,” Jagr said Saturday. “I’m not 21, trying to prove something with my words. We’ll just have to wait and see. I can promise you one thing, that I’m going to give it my best shot to play on a high level.”
That what the Flyers are counting on as they chase their first championship since 1975.
Jagr joked that he thought “what am I doing?” as he pulled on the Flyers sweater for the first time. He hit the ice with his new team for the first time this weekend, and expects to become a valuable contributor to a team that underwent a massive roster shakeup over the summer.
Jagr’s acquisition is a big part of the Flyers’ off-season overhaul that has seen them jettison key cogs Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Ville Leino and Brian Boucher, among others.
Jagr will be looked upon to provide some of that scoring punch. He has 646 career NHL goals, and on opening night, he will be the NHL’s active scoring leader with 1,599 points.
Jagr was a Pittsburgh draft pick in 1990, and helped lead the Penguins to two Stanley Cup championships.
He wants to bring the Cup back to Philadelphia.
“I think this team has a big shot to do it,” he said, “and I want to be part of it.”
Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren took a gamble because Jagr is in tremendous shape, a natural leader, and still has one of the hardest shots on the team.
“Watching them all those years with Pittsburgh and then with the Rangers, he’s a star. He’s been a star,” Holmgren said. “Our decision in the summertime to pursue him, and it was just a shot in the dark as you remember, you have an opportunity to add one of the best offensive players who’s ever played the game.”
A Czech native, Jagr won an Olympic gold medal in 1998 and a bronze in 2006. He also won two Ice Hockey World Championships in 2005 and 2010. The Penguins pursued him and hoped he would return to the franchise. Instead, he spurned them to play for one of their fiercest rivals.
Jagr said he didn’t expect Penguins fans to be disappointed in his decision.
“I never thought that Pittsburgh fans would want me back,” Jagr said. “Every time I played there, they were booing me every time I touched the puck. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal that I didn’t sign with Pittsburgh.”
While most of the Flyers had been skating for weeks at the team’s practice facility, Jagr hit the ice for the first time Friday. He knew, and was friends with, some of the players killed in the jet crash carrying the KHL’s Lokomotiv Yaroslavl. Jagr stayed behind and attended memorial services.
“Sometimes life can be tough, for everybody,” Jagr said. “Sometimes life brings you something sad, and you just have to feel sorry for the families of the players. You just have to sometimes think that life is a little bit more than anything (here).”
Holmgren expected Jagr to become a leader in the locker room. The Flyers named defenceman Chris Pronger team captain on Friday, giving them a pair of veterans on both sides of the ice who know how to win championships and set an example.
Jagr proved his mettle when he refused to consider a multi-year contract but he didn’t know how much he had left.
“If I was confident I could be very good for this team and could help them a lot, I would be thinking more,” he said. “But right now I don’t know. And I don’t want to have two years and be here just to be here.
“I want to be a plus for this team.”