On October 5, 1990, the world was a much different place. The movies Miller’s Crossing (a Coen Brothers classic), Avalon (a decent Barry Levinson flick), Marked for Death (a Steven Seagal epic) and Henry and June (the first film to get a NC-17 rating) were released. The #1 song in the U.S. that week was “Close to You” by Maxi Priest and the top album was MC Hammer’s Please Hammer, Don’t Hurt ‘Em (in the 17th of its 21 chart-topping weeks!). And that day also marked the first NHL game played by one Jaromir Jagr, then an 18-year-old rookie straight out of Kladno, Czechoslovakia.
Now, a quarter century later, Czechoslovakia is split into two countries (Czech Republic and Slovakia), and the new Star Wars movie and Adele are conquering the pop culture landscape, but Jagr is still going strong. About six weeks away from his 44th birthday, Jagr recently passed Marcel Dionne on the NHL’s all-time goal scoring list with his 732nd tally, leaving him behind only Wayne Gretzky (894), Gordie Howe (801) and Brett Hull (741). Currently sitting at 1,827 career points (as of this writing), he’s also fourth in total points behind Gretzky (2,857), Mark Messier (1,887) and Howe (1,850).
On the season, Jagr leads the Florida Panthers in scoring with 25 points in 33 games (10-15) and not coincidentally, the Panthers are in a battle for the Atlantic division lead, just a point behind Montreal. The team has won six straight and Jagr is showing the way, even as he deals with indignities like losing his four front teeth to a high stick last week (he was patched up and returned to play, natch).
It’s strange to think of Jagr as an elder statesman. For so long, he seemed like the electrifying young buck on the Penguins, playing with veteran stars like Mario Lemieux and Ron Francis and racking up the points while his trademark mullet fluttered in his wake. Jagr came of age in the go-go early ‘90s, when there was plenty of offense and not much in the way of defense in the NHL. Even after Mario retired (the first time) and the New Jersey Devils popularized the neutral zone trap, Jagr kept leading the league in scoring. It wasn’t until he was shipped off to Washington that his point totals dipped into the 70s, but he bounced back with a monster 54-goal, 123-point season for the Rangers the year after the last season-eliminating lockout.
Jagr had two more solid seasons in New York before inexplicably bolting in 2008 for the KHL, where he played three seasons with Avangard Omsk (actually, he said he went to be closer to his family, but he soon grew tired of the smaller crowds). He returned to the NHL in 2011 with the Flyers, where he played a season before yet another lockout forced the league to play an abbreviated 48-game season in 2012-13; Jagr split the season between Dallas and Boston, where he contributed to the team’s run to the Final, grew some Wolverine-style mutton chops and named himself as his favorite player. His last two seasons were spent with the Devils before moving on to the Panthers this year.
As impressive as his scoring totals are, it’s fun to think about what they could have been had it not been for three work stoppages and his own decision to go to Russia for three years. Puck Daddy recently estimated where Jagr would rank had he not had those interruptions to his NHL career and came up with 852 goals (just 42 behind the Great One’s record) and 2,174 points (second to Gretzky but with no chance of approaching him). Boggles the mind, don’t it?
At any rate, Jagr continues to plug away productively for Florida, working well with the club’s young up-and-comers like Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov. He’s not the player he once was, especially in the speed department, but he’s still near impossible to knock off the puck and his passing remains impeccable.
How long can he keep playing in the NHL? A year ago, Jagr said he could play until he was 50 barring injury, but he amended that recently to say he wasn’t necessarily saying he could stick in the NHL until 50. Gordie Howe played until he was 52, but of late the closest anyone has come is Chris Chelios, who was 48 when he played his last NHL game in 2010. It’s a huge challenge, but at this point, who’s going to bet against Jagr?
It’s going to be fun watching this team fight for a playoff spot down the stretch, what with Jagr, the young stars and Roberto “Pump My Tires” Luongo in net. Hell, Jagr’s even growing his legendary mullet back. It doesn’t get much better than that, unless he’s somehow able to lead Florida to the Stanley Cup. THAT would be the icing on the bemulleted cake right there.