“Obviously, this guy’s a living legend,” says Eric Nystrom, a 30-year-old, hardworking forward and son of New York Islanders legend Bobby Nystrom. Among all the guys on the team, Nystrom seemed to hover around Jágr the most during practice, chatting, joking, and running drills together. “I had his poster on the wall when I was a kid, his jersey. It’s amazing."
By midseason, mentoring aside, the Stars were hovering at the middle of the standings, fighting desperately for the final playoff spot. And nothing revealed the team’s youth and mediocrity more than the fact that Jágr, the grizzled, wandering vet, the oldest guy on the team—the second-oldest active player in NHL, who turned 41 on February 15—led the Stars in scoring.
On the day I am supposed to interview him, Jágr doesn’t feel like talking to me. The highest-scoring European player of all time has always had a reputation for dodging the press. In the late 1990s, Jágr, then at the height of his career, told New Yorker staff writer Alec Wilkinson to get out of Pittsburgh, after his sudden arrival in the city coincided with the breaking of a Pittsburgh Penguins 14-game win streak. In Dallas, the Stars’ public relations people warned me. I’d have to spend a lot of time around the locker room before he’d talk, they said. It’s been a few weeks, and I’ve finally been promised some time to sit down with Jágr. First, it was Wednesday. Now, it’s Friday. There’s no guarantee it’s going to happen then either, and when it comes down to it, Jaromír Jágr can do whatever he wants.
The hockey star struts up and down the hallway between the locker room and the team kitchen at the Stars’ Frisco practice facility. He is 6-foot-3 and shirtless, in tight black biker shorts, with a sculpted chest and thighs as thick as calves’ necks. His once-iconic face, with its smooth, baby-face cheeks, is stubbled and wearied. But the protruding brow bridge remains, and those recognizable almond eyes still flash when Jágr shouts a wisecrack at a player or slaps a suited staff member on the rear.
During my time watching him like this, I’ve noticed two sides of Jágr. There’s the all-business Jágr, the stone-faced Eastern European who’s the only player on the team with a small bronze icon of the Madonna and child atop his locker. He’s the one who mumbles to reporters, who splits off from the pack during practice to skate his own drills or ask a young player to feed him dozens of passes to one-time into an empty net. Then there’s this Jágr, the knavish Peter Pan prankster. Around the locker room, he isn’t the superstar; he’s just another aging hockey player trying to feed off the youth around him.
On this day, the hardworking, loner hockey player shtick doesn’t fit. Jágr is in a particularly ebullient mood. Earlier, during practice, each time he beat goalie Kari Lehtonen on a drill, he raised his stick in the air and skated to the boards, giving the young fans watching the practice high fives by punching the glass. He was one of the last players off the ice, and he has been bouncing around the locker room for so long most of the other reporters are gone. I wonder if he sees me waiting for our supposedly scheduled interview, and then he looks at me as he walks by.
“Give me a minute,” he says. “I need to calm down before I talk to you.”
Calming down means heading into the kitchen, where Jágr loads up a plate of barbecue brisket and beans and teases Chefy, the Stars’ cook, about his food. “Chefy thinks French toast is bread with a hole in the middle and an egg,” he jaws at two other players at the dining table in the players’ lounge. Nystrom is busy rounding up drinking cohorts for the afternoon off. Cody Eakin, a 21-year-old prospect from Winnipeg, is in. Nystrom turns to Jágr.
“Coming, Jimmy? It’s right off Preston.”
The superstar doesn’t look up. He stoops over his lunch, elbows bracketing the plate, his head just a few inches from the morsels he backhands into his mouth with his fork. Chefy, a rotund man with the jolly disposition of a ship’s cook, comes in from the kitchen.
“I think I’m going to put together a book of Jágrisms,” Chefy says to Stretch (real name: Jason Rademan), a towering native Pennsylvanian who runs PR and player services for the Stars. Stretch smiles.
Jágr is finally finished with his lunch. He points to a row of leather lounge chairs toward the back of the room. “Over there,” he says in his still thick Czech accent, jabbing his finger at a chair facing a wall with a television. “This won’t take long, right?” It is more a warning than a question. I remember Alec Wilkinson writing that when the Penguins PR personnel told him that Jágr would give him only 20 minutes of interview time, he thought they were joking. For the kind of feature someone like Wilkinson was used to writing, he would likely spend hours, if not days or weeks, with a subject. Of course not, I say. I’ll be quick.
As we start chatting, Jágr is short with his answers. He doesn’t remember a time when he didn’t play hockey, he says. During the communist years in Czech, sports were the only avenue toward a better life. I ask about his grandfather, whose release from jail during the Prague Spring of 1968 prompted Jágr’s choice of 68 as his jersey number. It turns out both Jágr’s grandparents were imprisoned under the communist regime, and his parents met because his mother’s family moved to his father’s hometown of Kladno to be close to the jail where both their parents were locked up.