One of the greatest players to ever lace up a pair of skates was assigned to HC Kladno in the Czech Republic on Monday afternoon.
Somehow, someway it always seemed like future first ballot hall of famer Jaromir Jagr would play in the NHL forever. At age 45, Jagr was the oldest player to play in an NHL game since Gordie Howe nearly 40 years ago. Unfortunately, even cult heroes and living legends like Jagr always succumb to father time.
Putting Jagr’s legacy into proper context is difficult in the sense that he is such an iconic player. Over the course of his 25-year career in the NHL, including a three-year hiatus to the KHL in the middle of it, he accumulated 1921 points. The remarkable thing about that number is the era in which Jagr played a majority of his career. Not to discredit the greatness of Wayne Gretzky, but the 80s were a much more offensively inclined era.
Not many NHL players manage to play for nine different franchises under 22 different head coaches. The longevity of Jagr’s career should not take away from just how dominant a player he was at his peak. For the first sixteen years of his illustrious career, Jagr averaged better than a point per game.
The Rangers were an outright mess of a franchise when the team acquired Jagr. They shipped Anson Carter to the Washington Capitals who were suffering from buyers remorse. Just one an a half seasons after signing the Czech wing, the Capitals traded him within the division to get out from under the star’s contract.
Revival at MSG
Upon his arrival in New York, Jagr found a new lease on life at age 31. The late twenties and early thirties are usually the age range in which a player is coming down from their peak and begin to decline. This was not the case for the player who spurred the Rangers back into coherence and out of the cellar.
Prior to Jagr’s arrival in New York, the organization was in the midst of a stretch where the team averaged 73.9 points per season and finished no higher than fourth place. The Rangers were built around aging legends like Mark Messier and Brian Leetch and just could not compete with the teams in their division.
In his first full season with the Rangers Jagr finished two points shy of Joe Thornton for the Art Ross trophy with 54 goals and 69 assists. During the course of the 05-06 season, Jagr broke all of the Rangers single-season scoring records. His tenure with the Rangers just so happened to coincide with the arrival of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. That first full season with Jagr the team qualified for the postseason for the first time since the 96-97 season. The legend also picked up his third Lester B. Pearson award as the move valuable player as chosen by the players.
This was the start of a major culture change in New York. Following his superb season, the Rangers named Jagr the 24th captain in the franchise’s history. The organization was headed in the right direction even though the team never made a Stanley Cup final with Jagr on the roster.
The long-term impact
Having a living legend like Jagr in the dressing room around young impressionable players helped the Rangers out long term. Several key contributors to the organization’s long-term success including Ryan Callahan, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal all came up during Jagr’s time with the team.
In the span of a 25-year career, three years may not seem like a lot. In the long term, however, Jagr brought a culture of winning and professionalism to a franchise starving for leadership.
To try and sum up Jagr’s career is an impossible task. The forward is one of the greatest players ever and a once in a lifetime type of player. In a sport as physically grueling as hockey to last until age 45 is simply superhuman. The forward clearing waivers without a claim before being assigned to the Czech league is a true shame. It would have taken only 36 more games in the NHL to tie for the all-time record for games played.
If this is truly the end for Jagr in the NHL it has been nothing but a privilege to watch him play. A small part of me even wishes the Rangers could have found a way to let him play out the season and chase the games played record.