KLOTEN, Switzerland – Jaromir Jagr can see himself in an Edmonton Oilers jersey someday.
While the 37-year-old plans to play out the final year of his contract with Avangard Omsk of the Continental Hockey League next season, he hasn’t ruled out a return to the NHL in the future.
And if he does decide to go back to North America, he’d love to play for the team that offered him a free-agent contract last summer and made inquiries about his services during the season.
“I was pretty excited when I heard that Edmonton pushed pretty hard for me to get (there),” Jagr said Thursday at the IIHF World Hockey Championship. “I really appreciate it.
“If I ever go to (the NHL), they would be my No. 1 pick because they showed the interest first. I never forget that and I respect that. They would be my first pick.”
When Jagr was last seen in the NHL, he was 15 pounds heavier and carrying around the burden that comes with being among the top players in the league year after year.
Some time away in Russia seems to have served him well.
Jagr signed a lucrative deal with Omsk after the New York Rangers let him walk away last summer and no other NHL team stepped up with more than a one-year contract offer. At that time, he was eager to shed some of the weight brought on by high expectations.
“Day-by-day it’s so much pressure,” said Jagr. “I don’t know how to describe it. If I would be on the third or fourth line, I would probably be in the NHL because you don’t have to produce every night.
“After a while, you just need a rest. You know, clear your head.”
It was something he first got to experience while splitting his time between the Czech and Russian leagues during the NHL lockout in 2004-05.
He had 54 goals and 123 points the following season for the Rangers.
“I think when I came back I was playing the best hockey in awhile,” said Jagr. “I almost won the MVP, I finished second, even the scoring (title). Mentally, it’s tough in the NHL – you have to produce on a high level and everybody expects you to because you make a lot of money.
“I never minded it, I always wanted to be that guy. But it’s not easy to play in the NHL for 82 games plus playoffs in such pressure.”
Jagr was almost a point-per-game player for Omsk this season, finishing with 25 goals and 53 points in 55 games. He’s also been the top Czech player at the world championship even though he’s more than three years older than any of his teammates.
All and all, he doesn’t look or sound like a guy that is ready to pack it in.
“I love the game, this is no problem,” said Jagr. “I work harder than I ever did in my life, this is no problem.”
After facing Canada at the world championship on Thursday night, Jagr crossed paths with Steve Yzerman in the bowels of Kloten Arena. Yzerman shook his hand and told him he looked good.
It’s something the guys who shared the ice with him thought too.
“He’s still a great player,” said Canadian defenceman Chris Phillips.
Jagr was coy when asked about the possibility of representing his country at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, but he’s said before that he’d like to be there. With goalie Dominik Hasek planning a comeback in the Czech Republic next season, they could make a quite a duo next February.
Barring a change to his current contract status, Jagr wouldn’t be eligible to return to the NHL before the 2010-11 season.
He won five scoring titles and a Hart Trophy during an NHL career that saw him amass 1,599 career points. Jagr was also a three-time winner of the Lester B. Pearson Trophy as league MVP according to the players.
The most memorable experiences of his career were the two Stanley Cups he won in Pittsburgh.
Jagr wore one of his championship rings while speaking to a group of reporters on Thursday night.
“I’ve still got it for luck,” he said of the ring.
It sounds like one of the few things that could keep him from trying to make a return to the NHL is an injury.
“I’ll be ready if I stay healthy,” said Jagr. “I’ve got no problem with it because I’m practising a lot harder than I ever did in my life.”