TORONTO — Standing in the shadows of plaques honoring the greatest players in hockey history, a pair of this year’s Hockey Hall of Fame inductees took a moment to reflect on the greatness of a former teammate who can’t yet be found among those represented in a room called the Great Hall.
“As a rookie to come into the league and get that experience to play with Jaromir Jagr, that was a very cool experience,” said Henrik Lundqvist, the legendary New York Rangers goaltender. “I was probably 10 or 11 years old when he was dominating the league, and then you get that opportunity to play with a legend like that. It was great.”
“He’s truly one of the elite players to ever put on skates,” added Tom Barrasso, who twice won the Stanley Cup alongside Jagr with the Pittsburgh Penguins. “He’s incredible. I ran into him this summer at an event in Pittsburgh, and he’s still just about as fit as he was when he was in his 30s — still has the desire to play and is still as happy a person as you’ll find on the face of the Earth.”
Jagr is nearly six years removed from his last NHL game and approaching his 52nd birthday, but he won’t be part of a ceremony like the one held here Monday night for at least another three years.
And it’ll likely be longer.
There is absolutely no debate about the Hall of Fame credentials of the NHL’s second-leading all-time scorer, but he remains an active player under the bylaws governing induction eligibility due to games he’s played for the Kladno Knights team he owns back home in Czechia.
It’s an unusual situation without an end in sight.
There is no threat of Jagr trying to play at the highest levels of the sport again — the Penguins announced Friday that they’ll raise his No. 68 sweater to the rafters at PPG Paints Arena on Feb. 18 — but he doesn’t appear to be done with the Czech Extraliga just yet, either.
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And while one member of the selection committee only half-jokingly suggested that they wish he would retire already, there doesn’t appear to be any movement afoot to make an exception that would allow Jagr to be inducted without first serving the three-year waiting period from his final professional or international game.
“You could be asking 10 more years down the road and we’ll probably still be in the same boat,” said Lanny McDonald, the Hockey Hall of Fame chairman.
On April 18, 1999, the greatest career in NHL history came to a close with a passing of the torch.
Jagr froze the clock on Wayne Gretzky’s farewell afternoon at Madison Square Garden by corralling the puck down low in overtime and going five-hole to give Pittsburgh a victory over the Rangers. It was the 127th point of Jagr’s season and part of a run of four straight years in which he led the NHL in scoring.
The day after Gretzky retired, it was announced that he was up for early induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame, and 10 days after that, the organization’s Board of Directors formally voted to waive the three-year waiting period for his entry. Then the selection committee made it official in June when it declared that Gretzky had been “unanimously” selected in the player category as part of the 1999 class.
He was the 10th player inducted immediately into the Hall, and it was determined that he was going to be the last. At that point, the board eliminated the right of the selection committee to waive the three-year waiting period moving forward, except in certain humanitarian cases such as a terminal illness.
“Obviously Gretz was one of a kind,” said McDonald. “To waive that, I totally get it.”
The standard has been held for more than two decades since. That meant Hayley Wickenheiser had to wait three years before her induction in 2019, and it suggests other obvious first-ballot Hall of Famers like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will be subjected to a waiting period once they hang up their skates.
Multiple reasons were cited for making Gretzky the last immediate entrant.
There was a growing feeling that the policy was almost creating a different tier of Hall of Famer, which was not the intention. There was also the understanding that great players may not stay retired. Mario Lemieux was put directly into the Hockey Hall of Fame as part of the 1997 class and returned to play parts of five more NHL seasons with the Penguins. Gordie Howe managed seven more professional seasons between the WHA and NHL after being inducted immediately after his first retirement in 1972. Guy Lafleur returned to the NHL after being welcomed to the Hall in 1988.
There was also precedent to be considered.
The Halls of Fame for baseball (five years), basketball (four years) and football (five years) all feature a waiting period before induction. And, finally, there was a sense the players themselves appreciated having a period of reflection following their playing careers before receiving the honor.
“There are circumstances where a guy will retire and, at the end of that year, possibly come back in. Or at the end of two years come back into the game,” said McDonald. “Three just seems like the right number. If you’re out of the game for three years, there’s a pretty good chance you’re not coming back.”
The rules leave no room for interpretation or exception. All a player needs to do is dress in one professional or international game to delay the start of the clock on his induction eligibility by another year.
“One and done,” said McDonald.
There is always an air of mystery around Jagr.
He likes it that way.
As of this writing, it’s still possible that 2023-24 will be the first of three seasons he’d need to sit out before becoming eligible for Hockey Hall of Fame induction because he’s yet to appear in a game for Kladno.
He’s not disclosed his plans publicly, either, although Czech reporters interpreted an Oct. 11 instagram post where Jagr said that he received a call from the general manager telling him to get in shape as a sign that he was gearing up to play for a team he debuted with 35 years ago.
When asked about his plans in official interviews, he’s made comments along the lines of “we will see” or “if the team will need me” or “I will play if I see I will help the team.”
Jagr has practiced with Kladno throughout this season. Partly as a player, partly in a teaching role. He began the year watching games from the bench and has more recently moved to a VIP lounge higher up.
The smart money is on him pulling on the sweater in a game at some point.
“I think he’ll definitely play sometime this season,” said a source close to him.
There are all kinds of reasons for him to continue playing. He obviously loves the game, first and foremost, but he’s also good for business and remains a big draw for fans. And even at age 51, there’s evidence to suggest he can still help a slumping Kladno team win games.
He finished last season with eight goals and 19 points in 43 games — totals higher than several forwards on the roster.
“Jaromir, the guy is a machine,” said McDonald. “To be able to still keep playing at his age and play effectively. Whether he owns the team or not, to find a way to get the job done, that’s incredible.”
There is seemingly no challenge too daunting for him. Remember that Jagr decided to leave the NHL following a three-year stretch with the Rangers in which he produced 290 points to sign with Avangard Omsk in Russia. Following three years there, he played parts of seven more seasons in North America.
His last NHL game came on Dec. 31, 2017, for Calgary — a 4-3 win over Chicago in which he played 11:49 and was held without a point for a seventh straight outing. He’d been dealing with a knee injury, and his play was declining, so an arrangement was made that saw the Flames terminate his contract.
Without any fanfare or prior warning, he disappeared.
“I don’t really remember how it went down. I just remember one day Jags was gone,” said defenseman Mark Giordano, a Flames teammate at the time and now the NHL’s oldest skater at age 40.
“He was in great shape. I remember his legs and ass. He’s a monster, man, just a big human being. Impossible to move off the puck. Like when he gets planted, impossible to move.”
That’s helpful for carrying around the weight of his career achievements: 766 goals and 1,921 points in the NHL regular season, plus another 201 points in 208 playoff games. Five scoring titles. Two Stanley Cup rings. A Hart Trophy, three Ted Lindsay Awards and a Masterton Trophy for “perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.”
Oh yeah, there’s also an Olympic gold, two world championship golds and too many other honors to list in full here.
“He just loves the game and, to me, if you want to have a long career, what it comes down to is the passion for it,” Lundqvist said. “The way he trained and prepared himself, you could just tell (he was going to keep going). I didn’t see this, though. Like, I knew he was going to play for a long time; I didn’t think that he would play for this long.”
Over the past six seasons, he’s managed to play another 145 games for Kladno in his late 40s and early 50s. Don’t etch those totals onto a plaque just yet, though. Jagr’s is a career seemingly without end and that continues to delay one of the most automatic Hockey Hall of Fame inductions we’ve seen since Gretzky.
“I know he’s doing it for his town and for the community, to keep that team going, but eventually he’s going to hang up his skates,” said Barrasso. “And he’ll march right in here, no problem.”
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(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic, with photos from Denis Brodeur and Kevin Sousa / Getty Images)