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The end for an icon: Jagr set to close the book on legendary NHL career

Waived by the Flames and unclaimed by the rest of the league, Jaromir Jagr appears ready to close the book on his superlative NHL career and skate off into the sunset overseas.

So, it appears this is how it ends. After 24 seasons and more than 1,700 games, Jaromir Jagr’s Hall of Fame NHL tenure looks to be coming to a close. Placed on waivers by the Calgary Flames on Sunday, Jagr officially cleared waivers on Monday and will now begin looking towards continuing his playing days outside of the league he has called home for the majority of his legendary career.

It’s undoubtedly an unfitting end to what will almost assuredly be Jagr’s final NHL season. Truthfully, it’s a scenario few saw coming even when Jagr, 45, struggled to find work in the off-season. Believed by many to still be one of the best available free agent wingers despite his advanced age, and coming off a season in which he scored 16 goals and 46 points, Jagr’s services weren’t retained by the Florida Panthers, giving way to a months-long search for his next home in the NHL. It took until Oct. 2, mere days before the season, for Jagr to land a deal with the Flames. But what seemed at the time like it could be a fit — a place to play a lesser role and contribute as a third-liner on a relatively young team — turned out to be the exact opposite.

Jagr only managed to suit up in 22 games this season, over which time he scored one goal and seven points with an average ice time of little more than 13 minutes. That’s four fewer minutes per game than last season and a scoring rate that's far below his more than point-per-game career average. It didn’t help matters that Jagr, a workout fiend whose dedication to remaining in shape has kept his career alive much longer than anyone could have expected, wasn’t able to shake lower-body injuries since joining the Flames. It’s the first time since his NHL return in 2011-12 that Jagr has truly been hampered by ailments. He had, at most, missed nine games in a single season and a total of 20 games in the six previous campaigns. This season, he missed two dozen games since falling injured in late October.

But no matter the unfortunate circumstances surrounding Jagr’s exit from the NHL, and regardless of how poorly this last hurrah has gone or where he ends up next, one can rest assured this season won’t be how one of the game’s true greats will be remembered. As he skates off into the sunset, Jagr ends his NHL tenure as a giant of the sport whose talents have awed generations of fans. 

Drafted fifth overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990, Jagr broke into the league only months later and finished sixth in Calder Trophy voting among a star-studded class that included Ed Belfour, Sergei Fedorov, Mike Richter and Rob Blake. Over the next several seasons, Jagr established himself as one of the league’s premier players, one of the very brightest stars in the NHL galaxy. The first indications of Jagr’s greatness came early in his career. As a rookie, he chipped in as a secondary scorer on the star-studded Stanley Cup-winning 1991 Penguins before becoming one of the team’s leaders en route to a second straight title the following year. And his goal in Game 1 of the 1992 Stanley Cup final against the Chicago Blackhawks, a now iconic sequence in which he skated through a handful of defenders before backhanding the puck past Belfour, remains one of the greatest moments of his illustrious career.

Jagr’s true coming-out party, however, came when the then-22-year-old took over the temporarily Mario Lemieux-less Penguins in 1994-95. Jagr posted a league-best 70 points in the lockout-shortened 48-game season, winning his first of five Art Ross Trophies — he won four in a row from 1997-98 through 2000-01 — and finished second in Hart Trophy voting as the league’s MVP. And despite years of 149 points, 95 points and 102 points in the three following seasons, the Hart would continue to evade Jagr until the 1998-99 campaign when he won three pieces of premier hardware at the NHL Awards: the Hart, Art Ross and Pearson, awarded to the league’s MVP as judged by the players. Jagr went on to add two more Pearsons to his trophy case.

The second chapter of Jagr’s career began in 2001-02, after a blockbuster trade sent him to Washington. As a Capital, Jagr continued to be one of the league’s best offensive forces, a better than point-per-game player during the height of the Dead Puck Era, but his tenure in Washington was over shortly after it began. Two-plus seasons later, he was moved to the New York Rangers, which signalled the start of a marauding, meandering path for Jagr. 

What started in New York took Jagr, somewhat surprisingly, to Russia, where he spent three seasons with the KHL's Avangard Omsk before making a much-celebrated return to the NHL, signing with the Penguins' biggest rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. The signing began the "hired gun" era of Jagr’s career in which he played for five teams across four seasons, including the Flyers, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils and Panthers. It was in Florida, ironically known tongue-in-cheek for its retirement community, where Jagr experienced a late-career rejuvenation that breathed new life into his already outstanding body of work. Over the next two-plus seasons, Jagr turned back the clock with his offensive brilliance while shepherding in a new generation of star offensive players in Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov.

For most, those years as a Panther will be how Jagr’s final NHL seasons are remembered, not only because they were successful on the ice, either. Rather, most will recall them as the years Jagr became one of the sport’s most beloved figures. In his early years, some saw the mullet-wearing, post-goal-saluting, high-scoring Jagr as a player with an attitude and he had his fair share of detractors. Those feelings lessened upon his return to the NHL with the Flyers, to be sure, but there was no time Jagr was more beloved as a player than his days as a Panther. He was voted by fans to take a place among the all-stars as the Atlantic Division captain in 2015-16, he was at times followed by a legion of supporters known as "The Travelling Jagrs" and there wasn’t a building in the league where fans were anything but excited to catch a glimpse of a true living hockey legend. It didn’t hurt, of course, that he brought the mullet back. In hockey parlance, Jagr’s luscious locks were flow before flow was flow.

And as fans across the league cheered Jagr, they watched his pursuit of history and cheered as he rewrote pages of the NHL record book. Over the past two seasons, that included moving past Marcel Dionne and Brett Hull into third place on the all-time goals list, where he sits with 766 tallies to his name. We also saw Jagr chase down and surpass Paul Coffey to move into fifth all-time with 1,155 assists. But no moments in the past two-plus campaigns of Jagr’s NHL tenure have been as important as points No. 1,851 and No. 1,888. The former moved Jagr past Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey himself, for third in all-time scoring. The latter was the point that pushed Jagr one ahead of Mark Messier and into second place on the all-time list behind Wayne Gretzky. It’s a place in the record books befitting Jagr, who is a surefire Hall of Fame talent the likes of which has rarely graced the ice and a caliber of athlete, with a combination of skill, dedication and longevity, the NHL may never see again.

UPDATE: The Flames have officially assigned Jagr to HC Kladno.

"I want to thank Brad Treliving and the Calgary Flames for giving me the immense opportunity to be a part of their team and continue my NHL career this season," Jagr said in a statement. "Although I am very disappointed that things did not turn out as we had hoped due to a number of circumstances, I am deeply grateful to the Flames, the fans and the City of Calgary for having welcomed me so generously. I now look forward to continuing the season in Kladno."

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