Walk around this city known for its honky-tonk bars and Tennessee barbecue and one also notices the influence of hockey.
Posters welcoming fans to “Smashville” are taped in smudged windows of storefront bars, yellow Nashville Predators jerseys hang from rafters near the team’s logo wrapped in neon.
The Predators are playing host to this weekend’s NHL’s All-Star party at the arena which overlooks the city’s bustling bar district.
In the middle of this weekend’s hockey tonk is a reluctant visitor, a 43-year-old hockey legend who says he would rather skate on his own to prepare for his team’s playoff push than be part of a fancy exhibition.
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Only of all the All-Stars, Jaromir Jagr may be the one everyone wants to see.
“He’s the modern-day Gordie Howe,’’ Toronto coach Mike Babcock said earlier this week, adding he hoped Jagr would autograph one of his sticks for him.
A large image of Jagr in his red Florida Panthers sweater is plastered above one of the entrances to Bridgestone Arena.
His No. 68 All-Star jersey — likely his final such jersey — is a hot seller at team stores around town.
Hockey fans in Nashville just can’t get enough of Jagr, something he sensed weeks ago.
For this reason, perhaps, is why Jagr decided to go ahead and show up after making veiled threats about staying in the sunny south.
In skipping the All-Star game, a player would be suspended for one regular season game either immediately before or after the event -- a punishment agreeable enough to Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Chicago’s Jonathan Toews apparently.
Jagr not wanting to miss a game outweighed having almost a full week to increase his on and off-ice workouts.
The Panthers were able to get Jagr practice time at the arena on Saturday, improving his mood.
“Well, the thing is I have to be here. I was voted in and I don’t want to be suspended, miss a game,’’ said Jagr, whose team will visit the Capitals without their captain Ovechkin on Tuesday.
“I love the idea of the All-Stars and think it’s great for our fans, but for me, at my age, I know what I need to do for the rest of the season and the playoffs.
“I was planning to work a little bit harder. I don’t have that chance now, and that’s OK. I’m not complaining.”
Jagr was one of the biggest hits of media day on Friday with his 17-plus minute session drawing the majority of media present.
“He looks like he was having a good time,’’ teammate Roberto Luongo said. “I hope he enjoys it. It’s a memorable experience.”
Now in his 22nd NHL season, the fact Jagr is still playing at such a high level is a mystery.
“He had 200 goals on the night I was born,’’ said 19-year-old Aaron Ekblad, one of four players or coaches representing the Panthers this weekend. “He’s an unbelievable person. Very caring, loves to teach. It’s amazing to be part of the milestones he keeps collecting in Florida.”
10The number of All-Star Game appearances Jagr will have Sunday
43Jagr is the oldest player in the NHL and turns 44 on Feb. 15
737 Fourth on the NHL’s all-time goals list, trailing Brett Hull by four
1,585 10th on the all-time games played list; can get to eighth by the end of this season
1,835 Fourth on the NHL’s all-time points list, trailing Gordie Howe by 15
Everyone wants to know what Jagr’s secret is, but if he knows it, he’s keeping it to himself for now.
Playing young may just be an attitude as although Jagr will make jokes about his age, he makes it clear he doesn’t act his age nor does he dress the way many of his peers do.
“We have a lot of young guys in our dressing room and I spend a lot of time with them,’’ said Jagr, who turns 44 in a few weeks.
“My linemates are young, their combined age is younger than me. And I spend a lot of time talking with them and I don’t feel that old. I feel 42.
“Just to play at my age is a challenge every day. Just to play, somehow be a help for the team is a minor miracle.”
Whatever the case, the Panthers have turned their fortunes around ever since they pried Jagr away from New Jersey last February in a trade Jagr wasn’t all too happy with at the time.
The Devils didn’t consult Jagr on the deal and he said he didn’t know anything about the Panthers, didn’t know their players.
Once he arrived in South Florida and started clicking with young linemates Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau -- whose combined age is still younger than Jagr -- he felt something special happening.
Jagr signed a one-year contract extension almost as soon as that season ended, and although he hasn’t commented on what he will do next year, the thought is Jagr will be back with the Panthers in 2016-17.
The Panthers, who came into this All-Star break holding a five point lead atop the Atlantic Division, give Jagr plenty of room to do what he feels he needs to do.
If Jagr wanted to skip Nashville and miss a game, the team was fine with it.
Everything has seemed to work out so far.
“Since we got him, he has been very effective especially with the two kids he’s been playing with,’’ said coach Gerard Gallant, who will coach the Atlantic Division team Sunday.
“He brings a work ethic to our team, his off-ice training is second to none. He wants to play until he’s 50 and I don’t know. He doesn’t take many days off, he just keeps that body going.”