Jagr in 2010. Wikicommons

Sports

Happy Birthday, Jaromir Jagr, Former Dallas Star Still Playing Pro Hockey at 49

HIs time in Dallas was brief, but the longevity of Jagr's career is nearly unmatched in the history of professional sports

I’m about a month late on this, but I just learned yesterday that former Dallas Stars forward Jaromir Jagr, who turns 49 this coming Monday, is still playing professional hockey. The Czech legend entered the league and led the Pittsburg Penguins to two Stanley Cups way back in the early 1990s. He mulled over retirement before the start of this season, but then opted to play for his hometown Kladno Knights, in the Czech league. If Jagr can grind through a couple of more seasons, he will become the oldest professional hockey player in the history of the game, surpassing Gordie “Mr. Hockey” Howe, who hung up his skates at the ripe age of 51.

During Jagr’s brief stint in Dallas, I spent some time shadowing the forward who is second in NHL career regular season points. I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of extraordinary, talented, and famous people doing this job, but Jagr was the first time I met a legitimate childhood hero. When he started his NHL career, I was just 9 years old, playing rec league hockey and collecting hockey cards. Jagr came to the United States as the Iron Curtain fell, and he was one of the first of a wave of players from Eastern Europe who would radically transform the talent and makeup of the National Hockey League. That he was Czech and I was a hockey-obsessed kid with Czech heritage meant that, regardless of my hatred for the Pens, I wanted to be Jaromir Jagr.

In those early years, Jagr was magic on the ice. It wasn’t just the quantity of goals and assists he racked up, but the quality and inventiveness of his play — combining physicality and exceptional puck handling skills that could make goals materialize from nothing. But by the time I met him, in 2013, Jagr’s longevity and workhorse mentality had eclipsed his reputation for gritty finesse. At the time he was 41. He had five more NHL seasons ahead of him and at least two more seasons in the Czech league.

After Dallas, Jagr went on to play for the Bruins, Devils, Panthers, and Flames. In 2018, injuries limited his playing time and production, and he eventually drifted back to HC Kladno, where injuries continued to hamper his performance. But he could still show flashes of brilliance. In 2019, Jagr scored four goals in a single game for Kladno that helped elevate the team into the Czech league’s top division.

When Jagr returned to the Czech Republic, he was ranked third in all-time NHL games played, behind Howe and former Oiler and Ranger great Mark Messier. Earlier this week, however, Jagr dropped to fourth when San Jose Shark Patrick Marleau took the ice in his 1,734th NHL game. Marleau is 41 years old — a baby when compared to Jagr and Howe — and so it is likely the Shark forward will move into the No. 1 spot before the end of this season. He only needs 34 games; it will likely happen in April.

But that’s NHL games. At 49, Jagr is still the second-oldest professional hockey player of all time, and if his body hangs on for a couple of more seasons, he will surpass Howe. Sure, you can argue that these last seasons are not in the NHL, and that NHL play would have taken a greater physical toll on Jagr. You could also argue that the NHL has been more physical during Jagr’s career than when Howe played (the Red Wings great started in 1946 and didn’t hang up his skates until the end of the 1980 season). Regardless of whatever asterisk you want to tag to the record, it’s still an incredible achievement.

So why does he do it? This CBC Sports piece suggests three reasons. The first: he needs the money. The Czech star has been plagued by a gambling addiction throughout his career, though he seems to have had that under wraps for some time. The second: a love of the game. It’s not merely that Jagr likes playing hockey. He told me in 2013 that he could never remember a time in his life when he wasn’t playing hockey. In the 1980s, when he was a rising star teenager, hockey represented the only way of dreaming of a life beyond the oppressive Czechoslovakian regime. As a pro, the world of hockey became the bubble that gave him a home and surrogate family, protected him from the pressures of stardom, the dissociation of living in an alien new culture, and his own vices. Hockey is the only life he knows.

Finally, the CBC Sports article speculates that by staying active in the Czech Republic, Jagr may hope that an NHL team heading into the playoffs that needs nearly a half-century of experience who can still thread a few head-spinning passes, may scoop him. It points to Rickey Henderson, who, at the end of his baseball career, found himself without a team, so he signed with the unaffiliated Newark Bears before proving himself enough to grab a short contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers for one last hurrah in the majors. Maybe Jagr is holding out hope. But then there’s the statement Jagr recently made that he promised to take part in an outdoor game scheduled for December 2021.

My guess is that it’s all three — though my hope is Jagr’s gambling isn’t much of a problem anymore. Jagr, after all, is the owner of the Kladno Knights, the team he rooted for in his own childhood. He could hang up the skates, relax, give his body a rest, run the team, and live the life of a national hero while staying within a version of the hockey world bubble he has always known.

But that’s not Jagr. Jagr plays. He grinds. He works. Every day. And if he still can play — if he can still jump on the ice and skate with kids who weren’t even born when he became the youngest player in the history of the NHL to hoist the Stanley Cup — well, then why not?

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