The other day, I saw an old guy on television with dancing blue eyes, flowing locks and salt and pepper beard.
I thought perhaps this was the drummer from a touring rock band. On closer inspection, I discovered that it was in fact Jaromir Jagr.
The most interesting man in hockey.
The living legend was devilishly grinning at the cameras and the microphones and unabashedly gushing over Edmonton Oilers’ superstar Connor McDavid.
It was enough to make a grown man weep or throw up on his typewriter, which would have been a shameful waste of Victoria gin.
A Calgary Flame heaping praise upon an Oiler? During the gory glory years of the Battle of Alberta, this was unthinkable. Unpardonable puffery.
Can you imagine one-time Flames’ rabble-rouser Theoren Fleury extolling the virtues of Oilers’ abrasive chatterbox Esa Tikkanen back in the hey-day of sport’s bloodiest rivalry? Fleury is best remembered in Edmonton for his fist-pumping victory dance for the benefit of Oiler fans after a game-ending goal in the 1991 Stanley Cup playoffs.
During that ’91 edition of Alberta’s uncivil war, while the players were spilling blood on the ice in that series, off the ice Flames’ goaltending coach Glenn Hall was taking a run at a Calgary Herald writer in a corridor at the Saddledome the night after a loss in Edmonton (I still say the Flames exhibited all the grit of “a ballet company”).
In the 1980s and 1990s, mere mention of an arch rival in the Battle of Alberta would set a player’s blood boiling. I remember asking Flames’ agitator Neil Sheehy about Gretzky’s brilliance and he answered by grunting and spitting on my shoe. The grunt would have sufficed.
One of the most bizarre scenes was in the Oilers’ dressing room in Calgary where Glen Sather, the one-time Oiler coach and general manager, pointed to a shredded Oiler jersey on display for the media and quipped, “that’s Calgary class!” This was after Flames’ Doug Risebrough had shredded the jersey with his skates in the penalty box after one of the scraps.
So Jagr’s outrageous statement in his first interview after joining the Flames that Oilers’ Connor McDavid would one day break Wayne Gretzky’s single-season goal scoring record of 92 was stunning and left old school Calgary fans feeling queasy. Yet, when you think about it, it also smacks of brilliance.
“He’s a great player,” Jagr, hockey’s 45-year-old rock star. said of McDavid the day after watching the Oilers’ superstar undress the Flames with a season opening hat trick. “If he would learn how to score on breakaways a little more, I think he’d score 150 goals in a season…
“I wouldn’t be surprised if some day he scores 100 goals and breaks the record.”
As outrageous as it sounds, you had to figure there was a method to his madness. When you’ve played 1,711 games spanning eight teams and 23 years in the NHL and racked up 1,914 points, second only to Gretzky, you have earned a right to speak your mind.
The cagey Czech also knows a thing or two about gamesmanship. Hey, when you’re in the underdog role, why not butter up the best player on the favorite and turn up the pressure on the game’s most celebrated young star?
Twenty-seven years ago, Jagr was the young star under scrutiny, an 18-year-old taking the NHL by storm with those magnificent rushes, his trademark mullet flowing from his helmet.
But now, as he desperately campaigns to extend his marvelous career, Jagr looks for any edge he can possibly get. The jury is still out on whether the man from Kladno in the Czech Republic can still be an offensive force. There’s already some hand wringing in Calgary about the fact that a man known as a fitness fanatic did not dress for Saturday’s home opener, saying he has yet to reach game fitness. He may make his debut in Anaheim Monday.
When you’re in your mid-forties, Father Time could be tapping you on the shoulder could at any moment. It happened to baseball’s oldest player, 44-year-old Bartolo Colon. The popular pitcher known as “The Big Sexy” is now contemplating retirement after a horrendous 2017 season with Atlanta and Minnesota.
Jagr signed a one-year US $1 million contract, needing only 57 games to reach Gordie Howe’s NHL record for most games played.
In a league in which the game’s superstars such as McDavid and Sidney Crosby are mostly colorless men who fill notebooks with cliches, Jagr stands out as a breath of fresh air with his refreshing candor and infectious enthusiasm for the game.
Until recently, it appeared that his NHL career was finally over and that he may be talking contract with the owner of Kladno’s pro team (Jagr is the owner). Then, four days before the NHL season opener, a photo of Jagr’s Tabby cat appeared on Twitter (@68Jagr), fuelling speculation that something may be in the works.
In the photo, Jagr’s Tabby cat was lounging on a sofa in a bed of $20 U.S. bills with its right paw cradling a celebratory bottle of Jose Cuervo tequila. The caption read: ‘Look, I just tell my cat, there’s a chance to play in the NHL this year.’
Some may wonder why a five-time NHL scoring champion would continue to subject himself to the NHL grind when he could be lounging on a beautiful Lebedev Beach Kladno. Former teammates understand it perfectly and know it’s not about breaking more records for longevity.
Jagr’s former teammate Jussi Jokinen told the New York Times last year that Jagr “loves the game the way others love their kids” and he wasn’t kidding. Jagr says he would have retired long ago if he was a family man. His current family is the roomful of kids in the Flames’ dressing room, many of whom weren’t born yet when launched his career in Pittsburgh alongside Mario Lemieux.
“If I can play till I die, that’s what I will do,” Jagr told Sportsnet’s Kristina Rutherford last season, explaining his fountain of youth.
This is a man in a torrid love affair with a game. He needs to play on a free rein so one can only hope that the Flames don’t cramp his style and stifle his creativity.
This old guy with dancing blue eyes, flowing locks and salt and pepper beard needs the game even more than the game needs him. So give him ice time and a Dos Equis beer commercial and all will be well in the hockey world.
He is, after all, the most interesting man in hockey.