By Pavel Barta
A year ago, Jaromir Jagr’s storied hockey career balanced at the edge of an abyss.
Or so it seemed. Jagr spent 2019-20 playing in the Czech Extraliga with the Kladno Knights, his hometown team, with whom he’s played since departing the NHL in 2018. The 2019-20 season was Kladno’s first in the top Czech division since 2013-14. But the team spent most of the year in the doldrums, facing the possibility of relegation. A season-ending loss to Litvinov sealed their fate.
Jagr suddenly had to ask whether the desire to go on remained within him. He’d previously said of the possibility of playing in the second division: “I don’t know if I would still play, if I’d still find desire for hockey.”
When Kladno was relegated, he’d rarely looked so beaten down. But one year later, Kladno is champion of the second division and set to return to the Extraliga. Jagr’s contributions were vital in pulling them out of their downward spiral. Mission accomplished? Maybe. Maybe not.
Jagr’s 2020-21 debut required a little patience and understanding from both the fans and the team. The then-48-year-old Jagr dealt with off-season injuries that delayed his ability to get on the ice. It’s OK, though, Kladno’s owner was pretty understanding. That owner, after all, is also named Jaromir Jagr. The man of many jerseys also wears many hats.
Jagr eventually made his season debut on Dec. 16 in a 7-5 victory over Dukla Jihlava. At season’s end, Kladno defeated that very same Jihlava team to win promotion to the Extraliga in a thrilling best-of-7 series that went the distance.
Beyond the chance to play in the top Czech league again, Jagr has another momentous milestone to look forward to in 2021-22. And he called his shot. Jagr made waves in the hockey world with his claims he would play until he was 50. Some scoffed. But now, he’s within a short distance of reaching that mark. Jagr celebrates his 50th birthday on Feb. 15, 2022.
If he does return for 2021-22, he’ll do so clad in Kladno colors. It’s only fitting for the indefatigable Jagr, whose career simply persists. Jagr played 1,733 games, divided between nine teams, during his 24-season NHL career – a career interrupted by a players’ strike, three lockouts and a three-year stint in the KHL with Omsk.
His career in North America was as prosperous as it was lengthy. During his time in the NHL, Jagr won two Stanley Cups, a Hart Trophy, three Lester B. Pearson Awards (now known as the Ted Lindsay Award), five Art Ross Trophies and was named an NHL all-star eight times. He also enjoyed a decorated international career in that span: Jagr is an Olympic gold medallist (1998) and twice took home World Championship gold (2005, 2010).
The 2020-21 campaign was a fitting return to his roots. Jagr spent his prime wowing crowds of 20,000 in sold-out NHL rinks but played his most recent campaign in old-fashioned,
minor-league barns bringing his hometown team back to glory. Back where the journey began. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, no fans were allowed in the buildings during regular-season play, though up to 250 spectators were permitted for the second division’s championship series.
He still heard fans chanting his name. “You won’t hear it anywhere else, either,” Jagr quipped to reporters after the championship when he was asked if the cheers made him happy. “I’m almost 50, of course, I’m happy internally, that we got back. But I’ve won and lost a lot during my career. Everything is just beginning, I think. I’m already wondering what’s next.
The media was sent into a frenzy by Jagr’s journey toward promotion with his Kladno club. Hockey reporters in the Czech Republic focused almost as much on that story as they did the Extraliga playoffs.
But Jagr isn’t skating by simply on his resume. He can still play – and produce – even at his advanced age. Jagr scored two goals and 12 points in 19 regular-season games this year and added two goals and 10 points in 16 playoff games. He may not skate with the speed or zeal he once displayed, but he’s still graceful and smooth while in motion. Like a ship passing in the night – and not a ship named Titanic, to be clear.
Jagr spent the season with another long-in-the-tooth former NHLer, 38-year-old Tomas Plekanec, at both even strength and on the power play. The former Montreal Canadiens center paced the team in playoff scoring with six goals and 17 points in 16 games. The duo made things work regardless of who joined their line – fast or slow, quick hands or not. “They know what to expect from me, and I know what to expect from them,” said 22-year-old Ondrej Machala, who usually rounded out the Jagr-Plekanec line. “Jagr has a great pass and I just had to shoot it.”
While his feet may be slowing, Jagr’s on-ice vision is still sharp. His play proved as much. Jagr sent scores of precise passes to teammates all season long. He, in turn, then got himself into position to strike when the moment was right. Jagr still throws himself toward loose pucks in high-traffic areas in front of the net when needed.
Kladno right winger Nicolas Hlava believes Jagr’s play should serve as an example for young players. “This is what all young boys should watch,”
Hlava said. “Even if they only see him on TV or on the computer. His drive to the net at his age is incredible. It shows, to everyone, how to play it and what to do. Hats off.”
Plekanec also heaped praise on Jagr. “We make jokes, that he’s still playing,” Plekanec said. “But we don’t have to talk about that. No one can expect him to be a top player, but he’s still good on the power play. He can find his role and place. I wouldn’t be surprised if he played another two or three years.”
Plekanec donned the captain’s ‘C’, but Jagr still showed the burning desire befitting of a team leader when necessary. He was in constant conversation with referees whenever a controversial call was made on the ice. But that attitude garnered some pushback from competitors and observers alike. Perhaps playing in front of empty seats isn’t so bad for him, after all.
While he may have ruffled some feathers with his on-ice conduct this year, most in the Czech Republic still revere Jagr as an untouchable holy icon of the hockey world. He may have lost a few fans around the fringes, but it doesn’t bother him much. “Being famous in the Czech Republic is not very advantageous,” he said. “Then you have also a lot of enemies.”
None of this has affected his marketability. Jagr stars in commercials for products ranging from electric bicycles to vitamin water to grilled chicken to supermarket chains to expensive watches. The paparazzi still chase him and his girlfriends-du-jour around the streets. Tabloids speculate on whether the latest is finally the one with whom he’ll settle down. Such are the byproducts of Jagr’s fame.
He lives his life with the ease of someone who has nothing to prove to anybody. What’s next? Rumors are spreading he could one day hold a prominent position at the Czech Ice Hockey Association.
For now, he keeps playing because he still has a passion for hockey, but also because he has developed a serene sense of responsibility in his old age. “Do you know why I’m still playing?” he asked when explaining what drives him. “I have a responsibility to the club, otherwise I wouldn’t fly here and I wouldn’t be making a fool of myself. But if I quit, the partners and sponsors would leave and the club may be done. I have no choice. People don’t understand it, but I don’t care. Only God will judge me. I expect much more from myself, and I also believe that I have it in me.”
So he plays on. This year, Jagr became the would-be face of the Czech Winter Classic, which was to be played at the Spindleruv Mlyn mountain resort. Original plans for the event included an Extraliga game between Sparta Prague and Hradec Kralove, a second-division game between Kladno and Vrchlabi and a Legends Game between Czech and Slovak national teams. All were to be played at an open-air rink at the foot of the resort’s ski slope, and tickets were sold out.
COVID-19 changed those plans, and the event had to be postponed a year. It’s now set for December 2021.
At this point, playing hockey is a habit for Jagr. And it’s a habit he can’t quit. Out of love. And familial obligation. “It’s not easy anymore, believe me,” he said. “Because mostly during my career, I felt that if I wanted to score a goal, I would score. But suddenly, this doesn’t work. I have to practise, pay more attention to it and not gain 120 kilograms again.
“At the same time, people still expect it from me, and that’s probably the worst feeling, when people think I can, but I know I can’t. Plus, I can’t even tell them. I just know that I will do my best to help the club. I don’t know if anyone can understand my role. I don’t even want to be in such a position, but I have no choice. As long as my father breathes, I take the club as my responsibility. He held it for 20 years. As a son, I would be embarrassed if I left.”