DALLAS – In the twilight of a magnificent, Hall of Fame-worthy career, Jaromir Jagr takes on a new challenge, playing in the Western Conference for the first time, after signing free agent contract with the Dallas Stars.
After 18 NHL seasons playing in the Eastern Conference and a stint in Russia in between, Jaromir Jagr is heading out West for the first time, signing a one-year contract worth $4.55 million with the Dallas Stars as a free agent on Tuesday.
The 40-year-old native of Kladno, Czech Republic indicated that he thoroughly enjoyed last season in Philadelphia, where he totalled 19 goals and 54 points in 73 games, but that he began to look elsewhere when the Flyers delayed making an offer.
That’s when Dallas General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk entered the mix and convinced Jagr to join the Stars, a young club that has made a flurry of off-season moves after missing the playoffs four consecutive seasons.
Besides the hefty paycheck, the two-time Olympic medallist (gold in 1998, bronze in 2006) and Stanley Cup champion (Pittsburgh, 1991 and ’92) was also drawn to Dallas because it offered a chance to play a significant role as a top-six forward and a spot on what was the league’s worst power play unit last year.
“I got a call from Joe Nieuwendyk saying that the Dallas Stars were interested and I was very happy, for many reasons,” said Jagr, who made a successful return to the NHL in 2011-12 following three years playing for Avangard Omsk in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, where he compiled 66 goals and 146 points in 155 games. “For one thing, I want to play for a team where they feel I can help them and that’s the most important thing for me. I think I can play on the top two lines, I don’t want to be in the NHL just to sit down, I want to be a big part of a new team.”
“I don’t think there’s any question he still has game in the tank,” said Nieuwendyk. “He had a terrific season last year with Philadelphia, and he demonstrated that he remains incredibly skilled, productive and valuable. We see him fitting into our top two lines and contributing heavily to our offensive attack.
“I spent 45 minutes on the phone with him and it was really refreshing to hear his outlook on where he’s at and his game and the passion that he still has for it and the work ethic that he has to put into it. He’s still a world-class player and for us to be able to bring a guy like that to our franchise is a big deal.”
The Stars envision Jagr serving as somewhat of a mentor to up-and-coming talents like 22-year-old centre Jamie Benn and 26-year-old left winger Loui Eriksson, much like he did last season with younger Flyer forwards like Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, while averaging 16:20 of ice time.
“I think he really enjoyed his experience last year playing with a young superstar in Claude Giroux in Philadelphia,” Nieuwendyk said. “I would suspect he views this as a same type of situation here where he could really help move along young kids’ careers in Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson.”
“I can help the young guys, for sure,” said Jagr, whose eight power-play goals last year in Philadelphia were more than any Star. “The most important thing is for the young guys to be willing to listen. There is no secret to success, it’s hard work. Talent is good, but without the hard work, you don’t have a chance, you have to work harder than the other guy.”
Having only skated for Eastern Conference clubs, Jagr indicated he was looking forward to experiencing a different style of hockey in the West and downplayed the impact the increased travel will have on him.
“We talked a little bit about the style in the West versus the East,” Nieuwendyk said. “I think it was intriguing to him. He’s a guy that’s up for challenges. He’s done so much in his career that I think he viewed this as a challenge.”
“Playing in Omsk, the shortest trip was two-and-a-half, three hours – that was a rivalry for us, three hours by plane,” laughed Jagr, who helped Omsk win the 2011 regular season title. “And we were flying five and six hours twice a month. It was totally different than what anything in Dallas will be like, trust me.”
Besides some arduous travel, Jagr pointed out that three seasons in the KHL provided him with a different perspective on things, and perhaps helped improve his work ethic.
“I think any experience helps you in your life,” said Jagr, who ranks eighth on the NHL’s all-time points list with 1,653 and 11th in goals with 665. “There’s a lot of good players there. It’s a totally different game because it’s played on the bigger ice, but the teams in Russia put so much money into teams and they put pressure on the players to work, work, work all the time. There was a time during training camp that you spent 7-8 hours at the arena, it was just normal. But on the other side, after three years in Russia, I appreciated coming back again, I was missing it.”
Signing just a one-year deal means Jagr will have to determine next summer how much longer he wants to keep playing, a decision that will be based on how much passion he still has for the game.
“I’m not going to promise you anything, but I’ll tell you one thing, I’m going to try 100 per cent to be the best I can,” said Jagr regarding his future. “I know that. I just cannot be average, I cannot do it. It’s always been my goal that once I don’t feel it, that I can’t do it, then I won’t play.”
He also pointed out that if he does remain in the NHL, that he would probably not represent the Czech Republic in a fifth Olympics tournament in 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
“Once we come back to the Olympics, it’s kind of tough to go from the small ice, the North American-sized rinks, to the Olympic-size rinks, the European size – it’s totally different hockey,” said Jagr, who has participated in four Olympics (1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010) as well as eight different World Championships, winning gold in 2005 and 2010. “If I would be in Europe and still playing good, I would be thinking about it, but I don’t think I could play on the small ice and then go play in Olympics on the big ice. I don’t think it would do me any good or the team.”
While that’s debatable, what isn’t is that the Stars appear to be a good fit for Jagr and should benefit from his skills, leadership and playoff experience.
“The one thing I’ve learned in my life is that you never underestimate anybody, ever,” said Jagr, who was originally the Penguins’ first-round draft choice, fifth overall, back in 1990. “You learn every day, you don’t stop learning. You have to adjust your life, because life is moving so fast. The margin of error between good teams that are champions and teams that don’t make the playoffs is so small. The little details make a huge difference.”
“Even at 40, he’s a difficult guy to contain, he’s still as good as anybody in the NHL at using that big body of his down low,” Nieuwendyk said. “He still keeps himself in tremendous shape, and he knows how much he needs to play to be successful and how much is too much, so he’s really in tune with all that kind of stuff. I just think he’s going to be a real good fit with our group.”