When the Panthers swung a deal to bring future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr to South Florida in 2015, only a handful of their veteran players knew what to expect.
While Florida’s younger players such as Sasha Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad admitted to being “starstruck” by Jagr, Shawn Thornton began throwing around age-based insults at his former Boston teammate in good fun from the start.
Pretty soon, everyone around the Panthers figured out Jagr — despite his rock-star status in the hockey world — was simply one of them.
“I’m sure they saw me making fun of him the minute he walked through the door,” Thornton said with a smile.
“But I couldn’t imagine being a 20-year-old kid in the locker room and having someone like a [Mark] Messier come in. I wouldn’t know how to approach a guy like that at that age.
“He’s young at heart, and that’s why he is still playing at this age. He still has fun every single day he is here. Speaking from experience, you can’t play this game that long unless you’re having fun every day at the rink.”
While Jagr looks serious and intense on the ice, off it he’s a different guy ready with a practical joke or good-natured teasing of a teammate.
And it’s his general demeanor which has made the Florida locker room an enjoyable place for players to be around for much of the time Jagr has been around.
“I always had fun in my life, always,” said Jagr, who tied Messier for second on the NHL’s all-time scoring list on Tuesday.
“Don’t forget, before there was a lot of pressure on me every game. I’m not saying that’s not the case now, but I’m not the best player in the world so I don’t have to produce every game.
“I try to, but if I don’t, no big deal.
“We have a lot of talented guys here so I can be more loose, have more fun.”
Bjugstad has become Jagr’s latest in-house target as chirps from the far corner of the locker room — where Jagr has set up shop with a pair of locker stalls filled with tchotchkes and mounds of equipment — begin as soon as Bjugstad lumbers off the ice.
If Bjugstad is asked to do an interview (which is often), Jagr’s cat-calls become louder, his bellows filling the room.
“I don’t want to be Bjugy right now,” Barkov joked. “[Jagr] is a pretty funny guy. You can’t take him too seriously. He chirps a lot, and it’s fun to be around him.”
On Tuesday, Bjugstad scored his first goal of the season with Jagr recording the assist and thereby tying Messier for second on the all-time list with 1,887 points.
Jagr had been ribbing Bjugstad for days about not scoring a goal, promising to buy him a monkey for Christmas — you know, since Bjugstad had one firmly attached to his back.
“They have a lot of energy,” Jagr said of his much-younger teammates, “so I want to take something from them. That makes my life happier.”
After scoring Tuesday, Keith Yandle brought a toy monkey to Jagr and placed it in his second stall.
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It wasn’t long before Jagr delivered it to his pal Bjugstad as he was being interviewed with a wide grin and a knowing nod.
For Bjugstad, being part of this is almost surreal.
“I’ll take whatever chirp comes from him,” he said. “But now that we have been around him for a while, guys dish it back. And he enjoys that. When he came in, we were definitely starstruck.
“Seeing him gel with Huberdeau and Barkov right from the start made him easy to be around. His mood, his energy every day is incredible.”
THIS AND THAT
▪ Interim coach Tom Rowe said the Panthers wanted to give Roberto Luongo a full game worth of rest so James Reimer started against the Bruins and Mike McKenna was called up from the minors on an emergency basis to serve as the on-bench backup. Luongo, Rowe said, is fine and is expected to start the second night of the back-to-back set Friday against the visiting Red Wings.
▪ Jonathan Marchessault was back in the lineup on Thursday after missing seven of the previous eight games with what is believed to be a groin issue.
Friday: Red Wings at Panthers
When/where: 7:30 p.m.; BB&T Center, Sunrise.
TV/radio: FSFL; WQAM 560, WMEN 640, WMYM 990.
Series: Detroit leads 19-15-5.
Scouting report: Florida has won the first three games against Detroit this season and 11 of the past 16. … Detroit has been in South Florida since losing 4-1 at Tampa Bay on Tuesday. … The Wings snapped a four-game slide Saturday night but have lost five of their past six. … The first 10,000 fans get an Aaron Ekblad All-Star Game bobblehead.