Old man and the Stars: Jaromir Jagr embraces leading role in Dallas

DETROIT – It was past 10 o'clock on Tuesday night, and the Dallas Stars were going through the usual postgame routine. Some players rode stationary bikes in the middle of the visitors' dressing room at Joe Louis Arena, pushing so hard they were out of breath. Others stretched on the floor.

And then there was Jaromir Jagr.

Out in the hallway – where equipment guys loaded gear into a truck parked indoors, where arena workers pushed carts of beer into a huge cooler, where reporters scurried to the media room to file their game stories, where all sorts of family and friends and hangers-on gathered to catch a glimpse of backstage glamour – Jagr did his own thing, as he always does.

He wore a weighted vest. He wore weights on his ankles. On the grungy concrete floor, along the spartan cinderblock wall, he did deep-knee bends. He did lunges from side to side. He did sprints.

Yeah, he's old now – he turns 41 next month – and the Stars had just played their third game in three cities in four nights. But he likes to work out after games if he's not playing the next day, because it gives him more time to recover afterward, and he'll tell you he'd rather be tired and strong than fresh and weak. If you're strong, fatigue is just mental. If you're weak, then the problem is in your muscles, not just your mind. Why do you think those legs are still going? Why do you think he's still so hard to knock off the puck?

Jagr walked into the dressing room, his hair a wet mop, sweat dripping through his salt-and-pepper stubble. He did an interview with a Czech TV crew and a couple of North American writers. Some of his teammates stared.

"This one's not much," Jagr said, looking down at his weighted vest. "Twenty-five pounds."

So there are heavier ones?

"I've got 45 [pounds]," he said. "I've got to wait. Before playoffs."

He burst out laughing.

"Don't want to show them everything now."

This is like Philadelphia all over again. When Jagr returned to the NHL last season, after three years in the Kontinental Hockey League, the moody superstar had morphed into a wise old man. He asked for a key to the practice facility so he could work out late at night. He was a mentor, especially for young star Claude Giroux. He was still a dynamic, productive player.

When Jagr arrived in Dallas, he asked for a key to the practice facility. A team official had suggested he work with a realtor to find a big place in a beautiful neighborhood, but Jagr chose an extended stay at a mid-range hotel about a block-and-a-half from the rink. Three of the first four nights he was in town, he was working out at approximately 11 p.m. The Stars think he will help Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn, if and when Benn signs as a restricted free agent.

So far, so good. Jagr had two goals and two assists in the Stars' opener, a 4-3 victory over the Phoenix Coyotes, and he was strong in a 1-0 loss to the Minnesota Wild. Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Bill Peters did the pre-scout on the Stars before Tuesday night's game. When head coach Mike Babcock asked him whom the Wings needed to watch, the first name Peters mentioned was Jagr's.

"It could have been Eriksson or [Kari] Lehtonen or lots of guys, but it was Jagr," Babcock said. "So obviously he's a high-end player still."

Jagr was strong again in the Stars' 2-1 victory over the Wings. It's only a matter of time before he gets the two goals he needs to reach 669, overtaking Luc Robitaille for 10th place on the NHL's all-time list. He's already eighth on the all-time scoring list and the league’s active scoring leader with 1,657 points.

"He's not just playing because of who he is. He plays because he can still play and because he loves it. That's what amazes me," said Stars defenseman Stephane Robidas, a 35-year-old veteran. "I think he's just a good influence for young guys and even for a guy like myself. Sometimes you're like … You don't feel as good some days, and you see him walk in the locker room and he's smiling, and life is beautiful. With everything he's done before, that's pretty impressive."

* * * * *

It seems obvious why the Stars signed Jagr and why Jagr signed with the Stars. After four years out of the playoffs, with too many empty gray seats at the American Airlines Center, the Stars needed to sell tickets. Who better than the most accomplished scorer in the league? They also needed to reach the salary floor and gave Jagr a one-year, $4.5 million contract. Who else was going to pay him that at his age? But there is more to the story.

At this time last year, the Stars were not planning on pursuing flashy free agents. They were focused on drafting and developing, the long-term plan to re-establish themselves in what had been the highest-revenue market in the NHL in 2003 and a top-10 market as recently as '08. But they had a new owner in Tom Gaglardi – no more bankruptcy, no more lender headaches, no more league control – and that meant they could spend and hire again.

Gaglardi brought back Bob Gainey as a senior advisor to hockey operations. He involved Mark Recchi, a former NHLer and one of his partners with the Western Hockey League's Kamloops Blazers. When the staff met at the draft in Pittsburgh, Recchi pointed out how signing the right veterans could help the Stars draft and develop. It could buy time for the kids to get ready, take pressure off them, give them examples to follow.

"It's not that you want to go old," said Stars president Jim Lites. "It's that you want to build your team around players that can influence other players and build the right way."

Recchi suggested two Phoenix Coyotes free agents: Shane Doan, a fellow partner with the Blazers, and Ray Whitney, a former Carolina teammate. The Stars signed Whitney to a two-year, $9 million deal.

And then there was Jaromir Jagr.

The Flyers had put Jagr on hold while pursuing Ryan Suter, and Jagr didn't want to wait. Agent Petr Svoboda reached out to the Stars to gauge their interest. Recchi, who had played with Jagr in Pittsburgh, reached out to Jagr.

The Stars liked the idea of Whitney and Jagr showing the youngsters how long they could play if they took care of themselves, and they liked the idea of Jagr on a line with Benn and Eriksson. A one-year deal came with limited risk.

Jagr wanted to play on the top line and first power play, as he had in Philadelphia. The money had to be important from a pure dollar standpoint, but it also showed respect and implied a role and responsibility. (What about the travel? No, Jagr had never played in the West before in the NHL. But remember: He had played in Omsk in the KHL. That's travel.) The deal was done July 3.

"Some teams if you go, you don't get the opportunity to play a lot from the start," Jagr said. "Now I get it, and it's up to me. If I'm gonna play good, I'm gonna play. If don't, I don't deserve it. Plus, I felt like they're interested to have me."

Lites said the Stars increased their season-ticket base by 12 percent before Sept. 16, when the NHL lockout began and business stopped. They filled their building for the opener and sold 75 Jagr jerseys that night, far more than any other player's.

They have a lot more work to do to recover from the bankruptcy and the losing and the lockout. They have not sold out Thursday night's game against the Chicago Blackhawks or Saturday night's game against the St. Louis Blues. This is the home of the Cowboys, Mavericks and Rangers, owned by Jerry Jones, Mark Cuban and Nolan Ryan. You have to go big in Big D.

But Jagr is big. As nice as it was to add Mike Modano as an executive advisor, bringing the former face of the franchise back into the fold, Modano doesn't play anymore.

"Don't think we don't think about marketing all the time, and it doesn't hurt to have great veteran players on your team," Lites said. "It's hard not to fall in love with Jagr."

Especially when he says stuff like this:

"I think the fans gonna come when the team's gonna win," Jagr said. "They're gonna come first game. They're gonna come second game. If they see you work hard and you're winning and you're attractive – you play attractive hockey – they're gonna come. That's what they're waiting for. Of course, some of them, they're mad. I don't blame them. But it's up to us how we're gonna play to make them come to the rink."

* * * * *

Last faceoff, season opener. Jagr tapped coach Glen Gulutzan on the shoulder on the bench. He had two goals. Did he want to get out there to go for the hat trick? No. He wanted to remind Gulutzan to put two centers on the ice, in case one got tossed from the circle.

Morning skate, Tuesday. Jagr sat on top of the boards at the Stars bench, running his finger over a rink diagram, discussing strategy with Gulutzan, while the rest of the team went through drills. The Stars hadn't gotten to the net enough in their 1-0 loss to the Wild, and Jagr, the almost-41-year-old vet, was sharing ideas with the 41-year-old coach.

"This is not all-star, when you play wide-open game and just go home next day," Jagr said, reminding reporters the Stars had six days of training camp and no preseason games. "You have to learn. It doesn't happen over one night. This league is too good just to go and play. You have to be in structure. You have to play the details or you don't have a chance to win in this game."

Gulutzan is willing to listen – he tweaked a route on the power play, so Jagr could get the puck in a certain spot with speed the way he likes it – as long as Jagr is willing to do things in return, like commit to stopping, coming back and playing hard defensively.

"It is a give and take," Gulutzan said. "So far we've talked about those openly, what the give and take is, and he's 100 percent on board. He's not 99 percent on board. He's 100 percent on board."

Jagr said you look at hockey a little differently when you're older. When you're young, you don't think about the team. You're more selfish. But when you're older, you want to help the team. You want to do whatever it takes. You don't want to be the guy who made the mistake to lose the game.

You can wonder about that. If it's all about the team, why didn't Jagr go to a team with a better chance to win even if he had to accept a lesser role? Why didn't he stay in Philly?

Well, there is what you do when you choose a team and what you do once you're on one, and this is Jagr. He has a unique perspective, balancing the business and the sport. During the lockout, he played for the team he owns in his hometown of Kladno, Czech Republic. He helped revive a franchise, and he did it not just by showing up to play, but by playing a leading role and scoring 57 points in 34 games.

He loves a challenge. He loves to practice. He thinks age doesn't matter as long as you're healthy, and so he lives near the rink and works out late at night and wears his weighted vest after games. He wants to keep playing a leading role in the NHL before going back to Kladno again.

"You play [as long as] you love the game, when you love it, when you want to be with that game," Jagr said. "It's like a marriage, I think. Would you have imagined you're going to stay with your wife that long? Well, you love her. You're going to stay with her as long as you can. If you don't, there's no reason to be with her. It's the same thing with hockey for me. I just love the game."