NEWARK, N.J. (AP) – Talk about Olympic hockey and many people mention the Canadians, the Russians, Swedes and Americans, the pre-tournament favorites, or even discuss players like Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Henrik Lundqvist and Patrick Kane.
The best story might be the Czech Republic and Jaromir Jagr. The man who carried his nation’s flag into the opening ceremonies in 2010 in Vancouver is back for his fifth Olympic Games at age 41.
Many of the athletes competing in Russia this year might not have been born when he burst onto the international hockey scene as a teenager, or when he joined the NHL in 1990-91.
Jagr lives for hockey and the present, so excuse him for downplaying this latest accomplishment. He’s focused on this week playing for the New Jersey Devils.
Always willing to laugh and smile, Jagr gave a typical answer when asked about representing his home country again.
“I’m already thinking about 2018,” said Jagr, who was part of a gold-medal winning team in 1998 in Nagano. “I’m using this year to get experience for 2018.”
The way Jagr has been playing this year, that might not be out of the question. He leads the Devils in goals (17), assists (31), points (48) and rating (plus 21). He has played in all 57 games, and is 23rd in the league in scoring.
“I’m surprised with how bad I’m doing,” Jagr said. “I’m not playing up to my standards. I’m not happy with it at all. I know what I can do and this is not acceptable. To get better, I guess I have to score more goals. I don’t score anymore. I’ve had the chances to score and I’m not scoring at all.
“If I scored more goals, we’d have more wins.”
Left wing Dainius Zubrus understands Jagr, who has won five NHL scoring titles in his 20 NHL seasons and one Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player (1998-99). He expects a lot out of himself and is critical when he does not deliver.
In some ways, it explains why Jagr – a two-time Stanley Cup champion – is still successful.
“He’s still doing it and he’s been here longer than all of us,” Zubrus said. “I’m not surprised what he can do. Hockey is his life. It’s the most important thing in his life. That’s what he does. But any time you see an older player play at that level, it is a little bit of a surprise. To see what he’s doing, what he’s providing. If you see how hard he works every day, then it wouldn’t surprise you.
“He works harder than anyone.”
Travis Zajac centers the line with Jagr on the right wing and Zubrus on the left. He has learned a ton from Jagr, including what it means to be a professional.
“He has no reason to work hard, but he comes to the rink and he is shooting pucks and bagging himself after practice,” Zajac said. “You realize how hard you have to work to stay in this league if you want to have a great career.”
Flyers coach Craig Berube was an assistant when Jagr spent the 2011-12 season in Philadelphia.
“I don’t know if I ever ran into a guy who works harder than him, to be honest with you,” Berube said. “When he came to the Flyers I didn’t know him that well, but this guy was an endless worker and he brought a real work ethic to our hockey club and taught guys how hard you have to work. Really he is a great player and a great talent, but his work ethic is why he is still playing.”
Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello has not been surprised by Jagr’s commitment to the team. He exhibited it in recent seasons in Philadelphia, Dallas and Boston, showing that winning was paramount to individual accomplishment.
The surprise has been Jagr’s ability to be so good offensively. Watching him every game, he controls the puck in the offensive zone with great strength, great skating and great vision.
Adam Henrique had a slam-dunk goal last week when Jagr sent a no-look pass across the crease to a wide-open Henrique.
“Merry Christmas,” Henrique said of the play.
“He’s one of the best players to ever play the game,” said goaltender Martin Brodeur, New Jersey’s other 41-year-old player. “He’s as good as it gets. It’s like bringing a Wayne Gretzky or a Mario Lemieux to our team.
“He’s a quality player, still at his age.”
Fellow Czech Patrik Elias laughs when people ask him about Jagr, saying he has talked about him so much this season that he doesn’t want to do it anymore.
Elias will join Jagr in the Olympics.
“Really, it’s going to be very close. It’s just like here. You can’t predict you’re going to beat any one team,” Elias said. “So you go into the tournament thinking you can beat anyone.”
Elias said the strength of the Czech team is at the forward position, and the ability to control the puck on the larger ice surface. Tomas Plekanec of the Montreal Canadiens is the captain, and he has plenty of help with Jakub Voracek (Philadelphia), Michael Frolik (Winnipeg), David Krejci (Boston) and Elias and Jagr.
Ondrej Pavelec of Winnipeg has been playing better in goal after a coaching change, but Elias said he would not be surprised if either Jakub Kovar or Alexander Salak was the No. 1 goaltender. Both play in Russia.
AP Freelancer Jim Hague contributed to this report.