Capitals rookie Jakub Vrana grew up in the Czech Republic, the country where Jaromir Jagr “was kind of a big deal,” he said. All young, hopeful hockey players watched when Jagr played for the national team, when he played in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League and of course when he played in the NHL, where Jagr’s legendary career has spanned nine teams and 27 years.
When Vrana first saw Jagr, he simply admired his skill, his size, his smarts and the lethal combination of all three. And as Vrana began his own path to becoming a professional hockey player, he naturally wondered what it would be like to play against Jagr, never honestly believing it would happen. After all, Jagr had already played five NHL seasons by the time Vrana was born.
“I didn’t know he was going to still play, right? He’s 45,” Vrana said.
Jagr was without an NHL contract until just days before the regular season, and then in his fifth game with the Calgary Flames, he suffered an undisclosed “lower-body” injury, ruling him out the first time Calgary and Washington played each other. But Jagr is back in the Flames’ lineup for Monday’s meeting between the two teams, marking a special chapter early in Vrana’s career.
Sharing the ice with Jagr is a sort of rite of passage for this generation of players and some have vivid memories of their first game against the player who sits second only to Wayne Gretzky in all-time NHL scoring with 1,914 points. Those tales help tell the story of Jagr, too.
“I think everyone looks forward to playing him, even if you’ve played against him 20 times,” Capitals forward T.J. Oshie said. “I think it’s still cool seeing him out there because he’s one of the greatest of all time.”
Before the 1989-90 season, the Flames went to Czechoslovakia for a portion of their training camp. Brian MacLellan was a 30-year-old left wing on a Calgary team that was coming off a Stanley Cup championship. As the Flames surprisingly struggled in those exhibitions against the Czechoslovakian national team, a 17-year-old Jagr — and his mullet — stood out for the opposition.
“He wasn’t dominating like he turned out to be, but you remember the hair in the beginning and just the whole look,” said MacLellan, now the Capitals’ general manager. “The hair thing, yeah. He’s got it going on.”
A year later, Pittsburgh drafted Jagr fifth overall, and he spent 11 years with the Penguins, scoring 439 goals and 640 assists in 806 games. The first time Jagr and MacLellan played in the NHL was Jagr’s rookie year, a January 1991 game between Pittsburgh and Calgary. The Penguins won, 5-1, with Jagr assisting on the first goal and MacLellan scoring the only Flames tally of the game.
“So, it was me and him going head-to-head, huh?” MacLellan cracked.
Jagr was traded to Washington in 2001, the start of a three-season tenure with the Capitals that went poorly for both parties. Jagr failed to live up to the sky-high expectations – his point production dropped from 121 his last year in Pittsburgh to 79 and then 77 points in his first two seasons with Washington – and he was traded to the New York Rangers halfway through the 2003-04 season.
Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik was drafted by the Penguins in 2000, but he didn’t make his NHL debut until 2002, just missing out on sharing a locker room with Jagr. However, other Pittsburgh players were eager to share stories about the enigmatic Czech. “It kind of felt like you knew him a little bit,” Orpik said. The first time the two shared the ice was in a preseason game between Jagr’s Capitals and Orpik’s Penguins.
“I remember I hit him pretty hard and I had [Capitals forward] Chris Simon chasing me around the rink,” Orpik said. “That was being young and stupid and I kind of learned the hard way. Chris Simon, if you don’t know who he is, look him up. Scary individual.”
Jagr and Washington captain Alex Ovechkin first played against each other during the 2004-05 lockout. Ovechkin had just been drafted first overall by the Capitals, but with no NHL games that year, they were both playing in the Russian Superleague, now known as the Kontinental Hockey League, or KHL.
“It was back in the old days,” Ovechkin said. “I was young. He was young. We grow oldies right now. It was a great date.”
Jagr played the next three seasons with the Rangers and finished second in Hart Trophy voting during the 2005-06 campaign, when he had 54 goals and 69 assists. But Jagr’s production steadily declined over the next two years in New York. Defenseman Matt Niskanen, then a rookie for the Dallas Stars, played him for the first time in November 2007, a 3-2 Dallas win that saw Jagr score the first goal. The next season, he was back in the KHL, spending the next three years there.
“I remember him being on the ice and thinking, ‘Oh, wow,’” Niskanen said. “I had that moment where I was pretty amazed that was really him and I was on the same ice.”
Jagr joined the Philadelphia Flyers when he returned to the NHL for the 2011-12 season. Oshie was in his fourth season with the St. Louis Blues, and in his first game against Jagr, he was part of the forward trio that was charged with containing a then-39-year-old Jagr. Oshie scored a goal and Jagr finished with a minus-one rating.
“Take that, Jagr,” Oshie said with a grin.
“He looks big on TV, but when you actually get out there against him, it is impossible to take the puck from him,” Oshie continued. “He’s so big and so smart and it’s so amazing seeing a guy with that size be able to do things he’s able to do. It was cool.”
Over the next five seasons, Jagr bounced around to four different teams before landing in Calgary this year. The longevity of his career has created a mythical air around him, a sort of bridge between generations of NHLers. He’s still an active player and also one of the greatest the league has ever seen.
“I can see that even from young guys on other teams, that there’s some respect there,” Flames Coach Glen Gulutzan said. “And there should be.”
Though Jagr wasn’t Vrana’s favorite player growing up – that honor belongs to Slovak Ziggy Palffy – Vrana thinks he’ll still appreciate the moment, that one day he’ll be able to tell the story of the first time he played against Jaromir Jagr.
“It will be for sure nice feeling to see him [for] real and on the ice,” Vrana said. “I think it will be a little bit special for me, too.”