If you stopped watching hockey over the last 15 years, you’d be forgiven for doing a double take after flipping on a Florida Panthers game. It’s not nineties nostalgia run amok, that flowing black mullet is the same Jaromir Jagr you saw hoist the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992 alongside Mario Lemieux.
Jagr, who will turn 45 this season, is still playing. In fact, he led the Panthers in scoring last year and appears to be immune to the declines of age that most mortals are subjected to.
At this point in his career, he’s damn near breaking a new record every time he steps on the ice. Last year’s 27 goals and 66 points are great for any player, but it’s the most goals ever scored by someone 42 or older. Only 10 players have even played an NHL game beyond age 43, and if Jagr straps up after his 45th birthday, it’s just him, Gordie Howe and Chris Chelios, two players he’ll no doubt join in the Hockey Hall of Fame if and when he decides to finally retire.
As he keeps playing and scoring, Jagr continues to climb his way toward the alpha and omega of NHL records, Wayne Gretzky’s career scoring marks. His points and goals can sometimes take over any discussion about his age, but any discussion of Jagr and the scoring record gets complicated quickly. That’s the case for any of his career numbers. The Czech phenom ranks third all-time in points, third in goals, sixth in assists and eighth in games played. But those marks could easily be higher than they are.
In 2008, at age 36, Jagr walked away from the NHL to play in Russia’s KHL, where he was the burgeoning league’s highest paid player for three seasons. He was the face of the league, featured in commercials where he said things like “Winning the Gagarin Cup will soon be more prestigious than winning the Stanley Cup.”
That’s the complication with his career marks. How high might Jagr’s totals rise in a perfect world where he never left North America? It may be the greatest “what if” of the modern NHL.
While those “lost” seasons were in his late 30s, years where most NHLers skate their way out of the league if they’ve somehow managed to make it that long, even a modest projection would rocket Jagr up the all-time leaderboards.
But that kind of projection is fraught with complications. What if Jagr came along a decade earlier in the high-scoring eighties? What if Mario Lemieux didn’t have to battle illness and back problems? What if Eric Lindros didn’t hold out multiple times? What if Russian players had come to the NHL sooner and Sergei Makarov’s rookie season was at age 18 instead of age 31?
Every projection comes with a grab bag of asterisks. Jagr would be higher than he is now, certainly, but even then, there’s almost no way to project that he’d catch Gretzky.
The simple truth is no one in the NHL is currently on pace to catch Gretzky, and Jagr probably wouldn’t be able to even if you spot him those three seasons in his mid-30s. Jagr is one of the greatest ever and has managed to miraculously play 23 seasons. But catching Gretzky is still a pipe dream.
If Jagr magically never sees his talent decline, he’d need to match last season’s 27-goal pace for the next six seasons to pass Gretzky. That means Jagr would be playing outstanding, unheard of hockey until he’s 51, the same age Howe was when he finally hung up his skates. (Though at 42, Howe too left the NHL. At 45 he returned to hockey to play six seasons in the WHA before doing a farewell season in the NHL at 51.)
As for the points record, Jagr is 988 points back from Gretzky. If Jagr maintained the 66-point pace he had last season, he’d have to keep that up for another 15 seasons to pass Gretzky. He’d be 60 at the end of that run.
But none of that means that Jagr is done setting records. He’s already posted his 750th career goal this season and is just 18 points from passing Mark Messier and becoming the second highest scoring player in NHL history. He’s also likely to move up to fifth all-time in assists and could climb as high as fourth in games played.
He’s one of the greats and has proved to not just be a highly talented young player, but one of the NHL’s hardest working and longest lasting stars. When he returned to the NHL on a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Flyers in 2010, the team had to give him his own key to their training rink in Vorhees, N.J. He wanted to be able to go by himself at night for extra training. Last season, coming off an overtime loss to Philadelphia when most players were dogged and getting some sleep, Jagr shared a late-night photo on Instagram. He was in the gym, working out.
In 2010, his final year playing in the KHL, a journalist asked him if he could ever return to the NHL. “Next year I will be 39,” he said. “I don’t believe many clubs would like to have me [on their] team. One has to be realistic.” There’s been little that’s realistic about his career. He’s been in the NHL longer than the Florida Panthers have been a team. When he made his NHL debut, over a dozen of his current teammates hadn’t even been born.
Could a hockey player keep going in the NHL until they’re 60? No, that’s not realistic. Could Jagr play until he’s 60? Saying he couldn’t may only steel his resolve. He’s had a singular career that we may never see the likes of again. That makes every game worth watching. It could be his last. Or it could just be one of many yet to come.