The Penguins began chipping away at a 4-1 deficit against the Chicago Blackhawks. By the third period, it was 4-3. That’s when Jágr took charge. After intercepting a pass, he whipped the puck around a defender, moving it from his forehand side to his backhand to find a little space on the ice near his favorite spot: along the boards, near the top of the face-off circle. Jágr had launched many offensive strikes from this position, but on this night, there was a crowd of players between him and the net. A Chicago defender tried to pin him against the boards, but Jágr made a daring move, scooping the puck between the defender’s legs and evading his check before stretching out with his entire body to find the puck again with the bottom edge of his stick’s blade. Upon reeling it in, Jágr faked a third defender, then cut around yet another defender, who was tangled up with one of his teammates in front of the goal. And then, finally, he sneaked a hard backhand shot between the diving skate of Chicago goalie Ed Belfour and the goalpost, tying a game the Penguins would go on to win. It is the most memorable of Jágr’s many goals (679 at the time of this writing; 10th on the NHL’s all-time scoring list).
The 1990s were Jágr’s time, but by the end of the decade, despite being one of the most recognizable forces in the sport—known as much for his distinctive hair as his highlight-reel goal scoring—his career was increasingly defined by an enigmatic, isolated personality and glimpses of misfortune. “I’m dying alive,” he said during his last season in Pittsburgh, a quote that began to turn the Penguins fans, who adored Jágr, against him. He left Pittsburgh in 2001, signing a contract with the Washington Capitals that was, at the time, the largest in NHL history, and cultivated a reputation as an arrogant, disengaged talent trying to squeeze every penny he could out of his career.
Off-ice troubles with gambling debts and unpaid taxes weren’t helped by mediocre performances on the ice. Washington finally dumped the middling star on the New York Rangers. Jágr helped lift the Rangers into playoff contention, but the Rangers let him go in 2008. He landed in Siberia—literally—playing in the Kontinental Hockey League for Avangard Omsk, a two-and-a-half-hour drive from the Russian border of Kazakhstan. He made headlines again in 2010 after his team was swept up in a large, ugly brawl. That game had to be suspended just three minutes and 39 seconds into the first period because all but four players had been thrown out of the game by the officials for fighting.
At nearly any other time in the last 22 years, the Dallas Stars’ signing of Jaromír Jágr would have been a huge deal. But when the Stars picked up the 40-year-old in the summer of 2012 on a one-year, $4.55 million contract, his arrival was met with ambivalence and skepticism. Deadspin called Jágr a “mediocre hired gun, a traveling circus.” Local Stars blog Defending Big D called the signing strange but potentially exciting. Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk defended the move, saying he believed the aging star still had “gas in the tank,” that he offered the Stars a chance at making the playoffs. The team’s fresh-faced coach, Glen Gulutzan, himself only six months older than his new star player, said he hoped the veteran could mentor the Stars’ young roster. And, considering the team’s youth, Jágr’s late-career tour stop in Dallas offered new owner Tom Gaglardi a name that could sell jerseys in the fan shop.
In hockey, it is not uncommon for players to burn out and retire by their late 20s. Very few players make it past 37. But when the 39-year-old Jágr returned to the NHL on a one year, $3.3 million contract with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2011, most of the chatter focused not on Jágr’s regained form, but rather on the fact that the player had spurned his former team, the Penguins, who had offered him $2 million for a victory lap. “Jágr does what Jágr wants,” wrote ESPN’s Scott Burnside, and what Jágr wanted, it appeared, was a paycheck. He surprised skeptics when he turned in a decent season in Philadelphia, racking up 54 points in 73 games, modest by Jágr standards but third highest on the team. And the Flyers got what they wanted out of him. During the year Jágr was on the team, their young prospect Claude Giroux emerged as a star player, and management spoke about the influence Jágr had on Giroux’s development and worth ethic.
For his part, Jágr kept his head down when he signed with the Stars. During the lockout that postponed the start of the 2012-2013 season, he stayed in his hometown of Kladno, playing for the team he rooted for as a child and now owns. A few days before the first game, he landed in Dallas and shirked the team’s offers to find him an upscale apartment near downtown Dallas. Instead, Jágr rented a room at an extended-stay hotel for $169-a-night. He asked management for a key to the rink, and on the team’s nights off, sometimes well after 10 pm, Jágr would go by himself to the ice to skate.
In Dallas, team officials latched onto the Jágr-as-mentor storyline. He runs drills after games and the young guys join in, hopping from leg to leg outside the locker room, skating extra reps of sprints in between the blue and red lines, or swinging around a small circle weight on the end of their hockey sticks. Team officials told me Jágr is going to do with Jamie Benn, the Stars’ 23-year-old top-line center, what he did with the Flyers’ Giroux. Players seemed equally star struck.