Jaromir Jagr wants to keep playing until he's 50

BySCOTT POWERS via <a href="http://espn.go.com/" title="ESPN" class="espn_sc_byline">ESPN </a>
November 11, 2015, 1:17 PM

&#151; -- Jaromir Jagr reaches over and knocks on a wood panel to the right of his dressing room stall while answering a question about a recent hamstring injury.

He then continues to knock the wood again, again and again as he's asked more about the overall state of his 43-year-old body. Once, after not getting a "knock" sound to his liking, he immediately repeats the action on another spot on the wood.

Jagr might be guilty of being overly superstitious, but he doesn't take any chances when it comes to his health. He is still playing and producing for an assortment of reasons at nearly a point-a-game rate for the Florida Panthers despite being the NHL's oldest player. There's his strength, puck-possession ability, vision and work ethic. But more than anything, Jagr credits what he's accomplishing at his age to the fact he's still physically able to play and still has the desire to do so.

"If you're healthy enough, then I believe it's up to you," said Jagr. "Like everything else, you've got to fight it. When you're getting older, you're getting more tired. But when you give up on it, you don't fight it, you're done.

"It's up to you. It's not about the age. It's about the willingness to do it. Age has nothing to do with it. It's just attitude. You've got a different attitude when you get older. Things are not as important to you. Some things you just let it go. It's an excuse, 'It's happened to everybody. I'm getting old.' It's not true. It's just an excuse for everybody else. I believe as long as you're healthy, you can do anything you want."

That's why Jagr is especially grateful to be healthy enough to play. Aside from his recent hamstring injury, which kept him out one game, he hasn't dealt with many physical setbacks in recent years. Since returning to the NHL in 2011 after spending three seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League, he has played in 89 percent of his teams' regular-season games. For his career, he has played in 1,563 NHL regular-season games, 202 playoff games and has never missed more than 19 games in a season.

Older players sometimes retire because they lose the drive. But for most, the decision is made for them by their bodies. It's a point Jagr brought up when reflecting on the talent in his 1990 draft class. Fourteen players in that class each played in more than 1,000 NHL games. And Jagr has no doubt that there are a number of players from the class who would still be playing alongside him if their bodies had held up.

"When you think about it, all the players ...  Petr Nedved just retired last year," Jagr said. "Owen Nolan had bad knees. He had a health problem. [Keith] Primeau got concussions, so he had health problems. But otherwise, they're great players. It doesn't matter how old you are if you have a health problem."

Primeau can attest to that. He retired in 2006 after 15 seasons and 909 regular-season games and certainly wishes he could still play.

"I always felt I would have a long career and I would be one of the guys from my draft class that would play for a long time," said Primeau, who was drafted third overall, two spots before Jagr. "Unfortunately from the neck down, I feel pretty good. The neck up, it didn't allow me to. I also had a long career. I played for 15 years, and that's a long career for any standards. To see [Jagr] playing 10 years post my retirement, it's otherworldly. It's not a common thing. I heard a stat the other day I think it was like there's 29 [players born in the 1970s] left in the league. And, he's a '72. It's crazy."

That's the exact phrase Keith Tkachuk, who was drafted 19th overall in 1990, used when realizing Jagr could soon be playing with or against his son, Matthew Tkachuk. Matthew is expected to be near the top of the 2016 draft.

"It's crazy," Tkachuk said. "I think Jagr probably can play for a few more years. I don't know where his numbers are right now, but for him to be able to play against a '97 birth year or a '98 birth year is insane. He's already playing against '97s right now. It's scary to think that's possible."

While Primeau, Tkachuk and others from the 1990 draft class are jealous that Jagr's body permits him to still play, they're mostly in awe of what he's still capable of doing on the ice. He has registered a point in seven of his first 13 games this season and leads the Florida Panthers with seven goals and 12 points.

"He impresses everybody every day," said Peter Bondra, who was selected 156th overall in the 1990 draft and played 1,081 NHL regular-season games. "He's still doing well in the game. It's amazing. Sometimes you [wonder] if he's human.

"I remember when we broke together into the league. That was a little different hockey. Obviously, hockey's changing every year. I'm amazed he's still keeping up with the game and still producing. Just normal guys and human people slow down and stop producing. But I watch his game, his moves, they still affect the game and he can still make a difference in the game. That's what separates him from the rest of us or most of us."

Jagr decided that his strength would elevate him above the competition when he came into the league with the Pittsburgh Penguins as an 18-year-old. He sought to be the strongest NHL player, and he put the time in the weight room to be that.

Jagr hasn't changed his mentality over the years. He isn't as strong as he once was. A lot of that has to do with him now weighing 230 pounds, about 20 pounds less than he did earlier in his career. Yet, he still is strong, and combined with his understanding of how to use his long reach and 6-foot-3 frame, it makes him just as frustrating for opponents. There's no need for old-man strength when you possess Jaromir Jagr strength.

"You can't knock him off the puck," Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise said. "That's the biggest thing. He gets the puck, sticks his ass out of in front of you and you can't do anything. Even you're told when you're trying to defend him, they're saying, 'Don't go [to him]. He wants you to come to him, so he can just do this and push you off.' You've got to kind of know how to defend him the right way. But there's not a lot of guys who have his strength, his size and his reach and his playmaking ability on top of that. He's a tough guy to defend."

As fast as the game is these days, Jagr continues to prove speed isn't a necessary ingredient to remain successful and keep up with the youngsters. He never relied too much on pace in his game, and that has become even more the case as he has slowed down over the years.

"Power, you're not going to lose as quick," said Jagr, who is averaging 1.16 points a game in his NHL career. "The speed, you lose quick. Speed everywhere -- speed in your hands, speed in your legs, speed in your body, you're losing the step. If your game is dependent on speed and you're losing a step or half a step, you're not going to be the same player. But my game has never been about the speed. It's more always about the power and the hands. I don't think you lose it as quick."

Jagr has maintained his power by maintaining his work ethic. His late-night workout sessions are part of what makes Jagr Jagr. Throughout his career, it has been a common occurrence for him to decide to work out in the late evening. He has had the keys to practices facilities at nearly every one of his NHL stops.

When the Panthers were recently in Chicago, Jagr felt a need to work out one evening even though he had practiced earlier in the day and had a game the next day.

"I've never see a guy off-ice work so hard as he has," Panthers general manager Dale Tallon said. "What he does is incredible. I've never seen anybody, his preparation, game preparation, off-ice preparation, working late at night, going to the rink himself, getting a key, skating with our strength coach. Last night he texted our strength coach, 'Meet me at the gym at 10 o'clock at night.' Those types of things. He's just consumed with it and wants to play until he's 50. God bless him."

Opponents respect Jagr for that, too.

"When you're able to play the game for that long, it not only shows how you're durable, but how committed and passionate you are about the game," Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara said. "He's obviously one of the best players to ever play the game and probably will ever play the game."

Tallon acquired Jagr from the New Jersey Devils for draft picks in February because he believed Jagr had something left in the tank, but he could also be a positive influence on the Panthers' young team. The Panthers' roster this season includes Aaron Ekblad, 19, Aleksander Barkov, 20, and a total of 10 players who are 23 years old or younger.

And those younger players take notice of Jagr's workout regime.

"He's a workhorse and he's 43 years old," Ekblad said. "Who says me at 19 or [ Jonathan Huberdeau] at 22 or [ Alex Petrovic at 23] can't work that hard? He's that good, and it's a product of what he does off the ice and on the ice."

That also makes Panthers coach Gerard Gallant's job easier.

"He's definitely a positive influence," Gallant said of Jagr. "You don't want to be dogging it when you're playing with Jaromir Jagr. You want to work hard. You want to compete hard. You want to make sure things are successful. I think Jags has been really good for those kids."

And a long time ago, Paul Coffey was really good for Jagr. Coffey was with the Penguins when Jagr came into the league during the 1990-91 season, and Coffey took Jagr under his wing, even if there were days Jagr wishes he hadn't.

"He kind of grabbed me and said, 'Kid, you have to do what I do,'" Jagr said. "It was the hardest thing I ever f---ing did. That guy was a f---ing maniac. I love him, but he was a maniac. He was a practicing freak. I almost puked every time I did it with him. ... It's impossible right now. I can pick any guy; I don't think they'd be able to do it."

Jagr is out to defy the improbable in his own way. He'd like to play until he's at least 50 years old. He's not sure if he can do so in the NHL at that age, but Europe would be the other option. As long as his health remains in order, Jagr doesn't see a reason that that won't happen.

Playing today and even later into life isn't about breaking records, making more millions of dollars or accomplishing anything greater in the game for Jagr.

"The reason I'm doing it is because I love to play hockey," Jagr said. "I love to play the game. ... I never look at the time [that has passed in the NHL], whether it happened 25 years ago or not. Every day I could play hockey in the NHL was a privilege to me. Thank God it's been such a long time I can play this game."

Until he can't, he'll keep knocking on wood.

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