In his corner of the sports world, Jaromir Jagr remains a rock star.
At 43 and beginning his 22nd NHL season and 28th year as a professional, Jagr — as he always has — goes about his life in the way he desires.
“I’ve never been a troublemaker, but I like to provoke,” the Panthers’ top-line left winger said recently.
“Everyone has a choice to live their way. … No one asked me if I wanted to be born, so no one should tell me how I should live. We’re all going to die someday, so I want to live this my way. I want to be good, though, not bother anybody.”
Jagr doesn’t drink nor smoke, yet he definitely enjoys life to the fullest.
And hockey fans definitely pay attention to whatever comes his way.
When an 18-year-old Czech model reportedly tried to extort $2,000 from Jagr over a compromising photo earlier this summer, Jagr told her to do what she wanted with the photo. He didn’t care. The photo was released through the Czech tabloids and it hasn’t bothered Jagr one bit.
On Monday, he casually told a Miami Herald reporter he was growing out his hair and bringing back his famed mullet from his early NHL days in the 1990s.
“We have to wear the helmet so I’m going to grow my hair back out,” he said. “I have to. It’s getting there.”
Within minutes, this little nugget of information had gone viral, bouncing around the world via Twitter, mentioned on every major sports website in North America.
It’s no wonder the Florida Panthers have Jagr front and center in much of their marketing this season.
Yes, the future of this franchise resides in its talented young players such as Aaron Ekblad, Jonathan Huberdeau, Sasha Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Brandon Pirri.
But the Hall of Fame players are the ones people pay to see.
“The great players love the game,” Florida general manager Dale Tallon said. “I had the great pleasure of watching Michael Jordan practice a lot at the United Center and that guy loved to play basketball. The great players — Bobby Orr, Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Dan Marino, John Elway — their preparation is second to none. That’s why they are so great.
“That’s what he is. He’s one of the great athletes of all time.”
Last season, Tallon was looking at adding a piece or two at the trade deadline to help get his team into the playoffs.
Tallon admitted he wasn’t thinking about bringing in Jagr (who is the active leader in just about every major category) until he read about Jagr complaining about being misused by the Devils by being stuck on a bottom-six line.
Tallon quickly got on the phone with New Jersey’s Lou Lamoriello (now in Toronto) and made a deal happen.
Jagr wasn’t told of the trade nor asked if he wanted to go to Florida — a franchise that made its NHL debut three years after an 18-year-old Jagr did in Pittsburgh.
Although it didn’t appear Jagr was all too pleased with the move, he quickly acclimated himself and became close with his new linemates.
“I think he’s having fun out there, and he’s been a great help to those kids,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “Putting them together worked better than we had hoped. They were a threat to score every time they were on the ice. There’s a confidence level with the three of them.”
Huberdeau and Barkov, combined a year younger than Jagr himself, followed their new teammate around like little kids.
They stayed on the ice late together, stayed in the gym working out late together, stuck around the locker room talking about the finer points of the game late together.
“When I heard about the trade before the Chicago game, I couldn’t believe it. I had to check on it myself,” Barkov, 20, said. “It was amazing to find out he would be my teammate. I couldn’t even concentrate that night. He was my biggest idol growing up. I followed every one of his games, every goal. What an amazing feeling to have him here.”
Said Huberdeau, 22: “We have a lot of good young guys, but we have a lot of good veterans as well. It’s a good group. We pushed for a playoff last year. We ended well.”
The results on the ice were magic, even better than Tallon could have imagined.
Jagr, Barkov and Huberdeau meshed on the ice, and the steps forward the two young players made last season were only accelerated in the final 20 games of last season.
All three were terrific, with Jagr scoring 18 points in the 20 games he played in Florida and the Panthers winning 12 of those games in what turned into a failed playoff bid.
Aside from Jagr’s six goals and 18 points were 21 points from Huberdeau, who won his first team scoring title. Barkov, in just his second year, scored seven goals with 15 points down the stretch.
The trio couldn’t wait to get back together on the ice once training camp opened.
“We took another step when Jagr came in,” Barkov said. “We played our best every game because we didn’t want to let him down. We wanted to be good so we could stay together. It’s so much fun playing with him. He has so much fun when he’s on the ice. It has been great.”
Their play in those final weeks of the season give the Panthers hope that this season is going to be different.
A team whose 25-point improvement last season was the biggest in the NHL is now looking to add to that. A few more points here and there, and the quickly improving Panthers could taste the postseason for just the second time since 2000.
“Making the playoffs is a challenge for us,” Jagr said. “We haven’t made it a lot, haven’t made it in a while, so we have to take that step. We still have a young team, a lot of new young guys are here. We have to take this challenge. Until you make it, you never know. Our youth may be an advantage in the playoffs, having fresher players. You never know.”
A day after the season ended, Tallon and Jagr agreed on a one-year contract. Jagr wouldn’t test free agency; he was happy trying to help the Panthers — and their young players — make that next step.
“I believe last year, if we would had made it, we would have made a lot of damage,” Jagr said. “You could see that in the way we were playing. In those last 20 games, we were out-skating teams, even those who went to the Finals. We just were too far behind. This year, I think will be different.”