Jagr continues to defy time

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NEWARK, N.J. — A lot of things went into Jaromir Jagr becoming one of the most accomplished and, for a time, celebrated figures in Penguins history.

His incredible lower-body strength. An overpowering shot. Exceptional instincts. And, most of all, dumb luck.

Although Jagr has drawn a paycheck from no fewer than seven NHL clubs since coming to North America in 1990 — he now works for the New Jersey Devils, who will face the Penguins at 1:08 p.m. today at the Prudential Center — he did his finest work while spending his first 11 seasons with the Penguins.

Over that span, he won two Stanley Cups, five scoring championships and a league MVP award.

Not a bad return from a guy the Penguins had gotten pretty much by default.

Jagr was in a cluster of five players atop every club’s prospects list for the 1990 draft, and Quebec, Vancouver, Detroit and Philadelphia concluded that Owen Nolan, Petr Nedved, Keith Primeau and Mike Ricci were better — or perhaps, safer — selections than Jagr. That’s because there were, at the time, serious concerns about whether Jagr would be able to get out of his native Czechoslovakia to pursue a career on this side of the Atlantic. Or, at the very least, when he’d be able to do so.

That proved to be a nonissue, however, because just days after being selected by the Penguins, Jagr stepped off a plane at the old Greater Pittsburgh International Airport.

No one seemed to mind that he deplaned with little more than a mullet, a blue-jean jacket and a command of English that was limited to a crooked-tooth smile.

Likely because he came with unlimited potential as a hockey player, too.

The adjustment to life on this continent wasn’t always easy — Jagr went through frequent bouts of severe homesickness, and once was prepared to go through Canadian Customs with nothing more than a bank card for identification — but he got acclimated.

And then he got dominant.

He isn’t quite the force of nature he was a couple of decades ago, but Jagr has been good enough, long enough that he could pass Mario Lemieux — his mentor and long-ago idol — on the NHL’s all-time points list today.

Jagr is the eighth-leading scorer in league history, with 1,722 points, one fewer than Lemieux.

Hurdling Lemieux would seem to be a significant achievement for Jagr, but after a workout Monday at their practice rink adjacent to the Prudential Center, he shrugged off any such suggestion.

“Right now, I don’t really think about it,” Jagr said. “If that happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Jagr is 41, but he also is New Jersey’s leading scorer. By a comfortable margin.

He has 34 points, nine more than teammate Patrik Elias, and is widely regarded as the Devils’ MVP for the first half of the season. And, while time might have eroded his skills a bit, his commitment to his craft hasn’t waned.

Jagr remained on the ice well after most of his teammates Monday, working on stickhandling and other details of his game.

“You can see how much love he has for the game, how seriously he takes it in all the little things he does,” New Jersey center Adam Henrique said.

At this point, only the mandatory three-year waiting period after he announces his retirement separates Jagr from induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Nonetheless, he declined to single out the accomplishment of which he is most proud, and even suggested it might still be coming.

“Everything I’ve done in hockey had been done before,” Jagr said. “I’ve had a great career, but whatever I did, it had been done before.

“Maybe that moment is going to come. It’s not here yet. Maybe I’m going to do something nobody has done before. Maybe at age 42 or 43, I might still be effective.”

If genetics matter much, he just might have a point.

“I just remember my father’s words,” Jagr said. “He said, ‘If you’re going to be like me, you’re going to be [your] strongest around 40.’ … Maybe he’s right.

“If you love the game and you’re willing to work for it and you’re still healthy, age doesn’t matter.”

Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@post-gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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