By BRIAN PINELLI
The New York Times
May 13, 2011
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — Showcasing the skills, strength and quick hands that made him a five-time N.H.L. scoring champion and a two-time Stanley Cup winner, Jaromir Jagr, 39, has seemingly turned back the clock at the hockey world championships.
Jagr, who scored three goals Wednesday to lead the Czech Republic to a 4-0 victory against the United States in the quarterfinals, had been his team’s catalyst throughout the tournament. The Czechs, the defending champion, lost their semifinal against Sweden, 5-2, on Friday.
Jagr, a powerful 6-foot-3 wing who is ranked No. 9 in the N.H.L. in career points and No. 12 in goals, is looking a lot like the star he was 15 years ago with the Pittsburgh Penguins and later with the Rangers. And if his play at the world championships is an indication of his skills, it seems plausible that he could yet return to the league where he gained stardom.
“Unless I stop liking the game, I want to play,” Jagr said. “I love the game. I want to play better and better every day. I think I enjoy the practices and games more than I ever did.”
Ray Shero, the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins and a member of the United States team’s advisory group, watched Jagr on Wednesday and came away impressed.
“It’s almost impossible to fathom,” he said, referring to Jagr’s hat trick, in which he demonstrated a different skill with each goal. “Playing here must be special for him. The Czechs have a good team. He’s one of their leaders and the reason they’re undefeated.”
Jagr, wearing his familiar No. 68, is tied for sixth in scoring at the worlds, with five goals and three assists.
“The game has changed; it’s so much about practicing,” said Jagr, who began his N.H.L. career with the Penguins in 1990. “I don’t think age matters much if you’re willing to practice, plus you have more experience. My advantage is that I don’t think my game was about speed. When you’re older, you’re losing the speed, but my game was never about the speed.”
Ilya Kovalchuk, a Russian player who twice scored 50 goals in the N.H.L., said this week that he thought Jagr could play until age 50. The Czech goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, 23, who hails from Kladno, where Jagr grew up, called him a “great teammate, great guy in the locker room.”
Jagr scored 646 goals and totaled 1,599 points in the N.H.L. Playing alongside Mario Lemieux, now a Penguins co-owner, he helped give Pittsburgh the league’s most formidable 1-2 scoring threat and led the franchise to consecutive Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992.
Jagr was traded to the Washington Capitals in 2001 and then joined the Rangers in 2004. His N.H.L. career came to an end after the 2008 season, when he felt he was no longer the centerpiece around which Rangers General Manager Glen Sather would build.
Jagr moved to the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia, where he has played with Avangard Omsk the last three winters, averaging 22 goals and 48 points a season.
He is currently without a professional contract, and it remains to be seen whether he will return to Russia, go home to play in the Czech Republic, or perhaps attempt an N.H.L. comeback. Speculation has swirled at the world championships about a possible return to North America.
Asked whether he believed he could still compete in the N.H.L., Jagr responded with a laugh and answered, “I think so,” then added, “When people say you cannot play anymore, it’s extra motivation to prove them wrong.”
Jagr said he had a good offer on the table from Avangard Omsk, yet he still waffles about where to play next.
“It’s too early for me,” he said. “I really don’t know where I want to play next year. Right now, I just want to concentrate on this tournament, and then I have to make a decision.”
But could Jagr, who lost favor with the Penguins and their fans when he asked to be traded in 2001, return to Pittsburgh for a chance to play with the team’s latest superstar, Sidney Crosby?
“Jagr is a guy who is part of the Penguins family and always will be forever,” Shero said. “He was drafted by the Penguins, grew up as a Penguin and won Stanley Cups with the Penguins. The relations that he had with guys like Mario and Craig Patrick is really special. We don’t want him to forget that because we certainly haven’t forgotten him.”
Shero also said that Jagr had been invited to a summer golf outing with Lemieux and his former teammates to commemorate the 20th anniversary of their 1991 Stanley Cup championship.
“The fans in Pittsburgh, they all wanted to help me and they all liked me when I was younger,” Jagr said. “Plus, the biggest thing is I had a chance to watch and play with the best player ever, and that’s probably the best thing that’s happened to me in my life.”