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PHILADELPHIA – The key to Jaromir Jagr(notes) might be the key – the key that unlocks the door to the Philadelphia Flyers' practice facility in Voorhees, N.J. The team has given it to him at his request, so he can go there late at night sometimes – like, 11 o'clock late – to work out and skate on his own.
"He calls it the 'Jagr Hockey School,' " said Shelley, who has attended some night classes and makes them sound like a graduate course taught by a famous professor. "It's just extra work, just extra stuff. He just has input on anyone's game if they're open for any ideas. He's just got a lot of things to tell me and talk about. It would have been nice to meet him 20 years ago."
Twenty years ago, Jagr was just embarking on a stellar NHL career – an MVP award, two Stanley Cups, five scoring titles. He left the league after the 2007-08 season to play in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, headed to the Hall of Fame with 646 goals and 1,599 points. Yet, pushing 40, not what he once was, he has come back.
It's a fair question, and I was as skeptical as anyone when the Flyers signed him to a one-year, $3.3 million deal on July 1.
The way he and his agent handled it didn't help. Jagr flirted with owner Mario Lemieux and the Pittsburgh Penguins – his former teammate and first NHL team – with agent Petr Svoboda even saying at one point that "Pittsburgh is in his heart." Jagr also flirted with the Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and maybe others. He disappeared for a while. When he resurfaced, he signed with … the Flyers?
Even though he said he could have made more elsewhere and Philly gave him the best opportunity to play, he looked like he had sold out to the highest bidder. He looked like he had turned his back on Lemieux and the Penguins by signing with their hated rival. He looked like an odd fit for the Flyers – a team that needed offense after trading stars Mike Richards(notes) and Jeff Carter(notes), but also a team trying to change its culture with youngsters like Claude Giroux(notes) and James van Reimsdyk rising to the fore.
Did he come back for the money? Could he hold up over a full season and the playoffs in the NHL, which plays a longer schedule and is faster and more physical than the KHL is on its Olympic ice? How would he be in the dressing room, and what influence would he have on the kids?
Well, now here he is saying the right things – that he doesn't know how good he will be, but that he’ll work hard to find out. Now here he is toiling at the practice facility some nights. Now here he is at age 39 playing right wing on a line with the 22-year-old van Riemsdyk and 23-year-old Giroux. Except for the two games Giroux played in 2007-08, those two didn't break into the league until after Jagr had left it.
"He's a very interesting guy," Shelley said. "He's a different guy than what I thought he was and really a great guy to be around for …"
Shelly emphasized the next three words.
"… every … single … one … of us."
The Jagr Hockey School, Shelley said, "is just one example of how much he likes to be here and what he expects from himself. That's something that rubs off on you, when you have a guy that expects so much of himself."
* * * * *
Jagr came in after a morning skate and peeled off the top half of his sweaty gear. As he leaned over to untie his laces, I asked him why he would skate so late at night. He sat back and smiled.
"Because the ice is free," he said.
That didn't really answer the question. Yeah, ice time is hard to come by, and more is available at 11 p.m. But there is a reason more is available at 11 p.m. – because most people are doing other things at that hour, especially professionals who practice, play and travel all the time.
Let's just say not all of his teammates have accepted the standing invitation to join in.
"No," Giroux said. "Not yet. I will. I will, though."
"He goes pretty late," Giroux added.
So I pressed Jagr. Come on. Why?
"The ice is just free," Jagr insisted.
What does he work on?
"Depends," Jagr said. "Whatever I need. During the practice, it's tough to work on something, because you've got to do everything in groups. After practice, you're kind of tired."
Has he always done this?
"Not all the time," Jagr said. "But when the ice is available."
Jagr declined to give any more detail than that, and his teammates were reluctant to give much more detail for him. Apparently he did this at least occasionally at his other NHL stops – the Penguins, Washington Capitals and New York Rangers – and tried to keep it quiet for whatever reason, maybe so people wouldn't bother him, maybe so opponents wouldn't know what he was doing to get an edge, maybe so he wouldn't make his teammates look bad.
Shelley said it's simple, though.
"He loves hockey more than any guy maybe in the room," Shelley said. "I've never seen guys do it before, let alone Jaromir Jagr."
You'd think Jaromir Jagr wouldn't have much in common with Jody Shelley. What would they have to learn from each other? Shelley is tough guy. He doesn't have 1,474 career points; he has 1,474 career penalty minutes. He has scored only six more NHL goals than Jagr has since 2007-08. But Shelley said Jagr trades information with everyone – questions and pointers going both ways. "He's learned a lot, and he's still learning," Shelley said.
While Shelley has been serving the suspension he received in the preseason for a hit from behind – five preseason and five regular-season games – he has gone to the Jagr Hockey School to stay sharp and has soaked up the knowledge. He has watched Jagr do drills of a much younger man, fine-tuning fundamentals like leg strength, quickness, turns, hands and shot.
"It's impressive," Shelley said. "Sometimes you don't know how to act, and sometimes you don't do things because of your peers and you don't want to go against the grain. But you've got a Hall of Famer, one of the biggest all-stars in the game who goes and does this, and it's just what he does. It's like some of us read books, some of us watch movies, he wants to go to the rink and be on the ice. It's probably where he feels the best."
* * * * *
This does not jibe with the image of a superstar who has seemed unhappy or uninterested at times. As soon as Jagr signed with the Flyers, I wondered how he would coexist with no-nonsense coach Peter Laviolette and stern defenseman Chris Pronger(notes), the obvious choice to become captain after the Richards trade.
But Pronger said he had an open mind. Shortly before the signing, Jagr asked general manager Paul Holmgren to have Pronger call him. Jagr asked Pronger about the Richards and Carter trades. They went over the state of the team – from ownership to management to the coaches to the players to the systems. Jagr had been in Russia so long, there was so much he didn't know.
"Maybe he was unhappy in Pittsburgh or Washington or New York at the tail end of his career," Pronger said. "I don't know. I wasn't there. I don't know him. I didn't know him. I just know the guy that I talked to on the phone that was interested in coming here and asked a lot of good questions. … He seemed very interested in the process and interested in picking the right location for him."
Maybe Jagr has matured. Maybe this is just a good start. We'll see. Asked if he was unsure what he was getting until Jagr's arrival, Laviolette said early in the preseason: "I like the way he worded it. He said he's going to give everything he's got. So that's good enough for us."
Jagr still has his hands and hockey sense, and he still knows how to use his 6-foot-3, 240-pound body to protect the puck. "He's the strongest guy in the league on the puck – by far," said Flyers center Max Talbot(notes), who used to face Jagr as an opponent and doesn't like to face him in practice now. "I don't want to hurt myself. He's that strong."
One veteran scout said you know Jagr is on his game when he wants the puck, and he looks like he wants the puck now. But everyone will be watching as the season goes on. Jagr never played more than 55 regular-season games or 14 playoff games in Russia, where he put up about a point a game. Will he want the puck for as many as 82 games and four playoff rounds in the NHL? How much can he produce?
There is still so much Jagr doesn't know himself. He said the NHL is different since he left, but "you've got to give me more time to find out which way it's different." He said playing for a new coach and a new team affects his perception. He isn't sure if the difference he sees is due to the team's system or the league's style.
He also said it is impossible to compare what he does now with what he did before in the NHL or the KHL. He was younger, on different teams and in a different era earlier in his NHL career. He said he played 22 minutes a night in the KHL; he has played between 13:48 and 16:27 in four games so far and has produced three assists. He doesn't expect to match his old numbers.
"It's impossible," he said. "I'm not Gretzky."
But that laugh is certainly a positive sign. So is the Jagr Hockey School and the Flyers' 3-0-1 record. Jagr seems interested. He seems happy.
"I can be happy if I am on a team when they're winning," Jagr said. "That's the happiness. Maybe feeling I can help somebody be better than they were last year. … The most frustrating thing is if you put the best foot forward and the result's not there."
Questions? I still have some. So do people around the league.
But it sounds like Jagr still has some, too.
"I’m always going to have the biggest pressure on myself, anyway," Jagr said. "If I'm in this world already, why not try to be the best you can be? Or else it's just a waste of time. Because you never know. Ten years from now, you can sit around and say, 'Well, if I would do this, this, this …' I don't want to be that guy, asking myself the questions."
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