Krupa: Jagr never made it here but things worked out

Gregg Krupa
The Detroit News

Detroit — It could not possibly have mattered to Jaromir Jagr, but five summers ago, I did not believe the Red Wings should sign him.

Detroit center Pavel Datsyuk gets a face full of elbow from Florida right wing Jaromir Jagr in the second period.

In fact, in a column, I kind of went on about it.

And, as Jagr said after the Panthers morning skate Monday, it was close to becoming reality — perhaps a lot closer than publicly known at the time.

“It was very close, actually,” Jagr said. “Yeah, it was very close. But it just didn’t happen.

“I just wanted to make a decision before the free agency, and I didn’t make that decision. The contract was off, and I had to sign before free agency and make a decision.

“When I came back, I wanted to play with (Pavel) Datsyuk. I was five years younger than now, but that was the goal.”

After playing for the Flyers, Stars, Bruins and Devils in the interim, Jagr made clear he is happy with his choice as he approaches his 44th birthday next week with the Panthers, who have surprised much of the NHL by leading the Atlantic Division.

I told him while I doubted it mattered much, I felt like apologizing to him.

Jagr laughed, patted my shoulder and said, “Oh, that’s all right!”

“Maybe I was an idiot,” I offered, laughing with him.

“No, you are not!” Jagr insisted. “You saved my hockey career! Maybe I wouldn’t be playing right now!”

Veteran leader

Jagr makes clear these days he believes things happen for a reason: He did not get to play with Datsyuk, but believes things worked out.

Clearly, despite my expectations and those of others, he has been a revelation since his return to the NHL at the start of the 2011-12 season.

An enormous offensive threat earlier in his career, Jagr had a reputation for less than dedicated play without the puck or for anything much in the way of defense, and for conflict in the dressing room.

He never seemed much like the sort of player the Red Wings demand and cultivate.

But not only has Jagr’s offense remained fairly potent for a late-career player, let alone one now well into his 40s, he is acclaimed as “a good guy to have around,” especially on a team with a strong mix of grizzled veterans, young stars and little in between, like the Panthers.

Jagr has followed seasons of 19, 16, 24 and 17 goals with 16 through 52 games this season.

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Meanwhile, teammates on the Flyers, Stars, Bruins and Devils often praised his attitude and work ethic, as the Panthers do now.

On Monday, 30 minutes before the morning skate, the unshaven, mop-haired Jagr placed both hands before him, firmly against the cinder block walls outside the Panther’s dressing room, and he began to sprint in place.

As five or six other Panthers lifted free weights, pedaled a bike or stretched, Jagr went it at it for a while, sweat pouring, huffing and puffing.

Asked if he felt he had a long playoff run in him, he hesitated long and answered seemingly as a matter of fact, “Well, uh, I don’t know. I start to work a little bit harder in the last few days. Maybe it starts showing up in a few weeks.”

Asked about Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and his pending decision on retirement, Jagr revealed much about his own philosophy.

“You know, I don’t think he’s going to retire,” he said. “I think he’s going to play. It’s just for him, it’s something new.

“He was always the man, and he just found out he doesn’t have to be the man to win.”

Keep playing

Jagr also clearly felt for Manning having to listen to criticism of his diminished production and ability.

But he made clear his attitude about life, applied to sport, trumped any such aggravation.

“People say you should retire on top. I don’t get it,” Jagr said.

“What is the reason? That doesn’t make sense to me. Are you wanting to die when you are 35 because you feel you’re at you’re best?

“You know what I mean

“It doesn’t make sense to me.”

By the way, like many, Jagr is a huge fan of Dylan Larkin’s.

And he added credence to my belief Larkin is so fast, he rivals former Canadiens player Yvan Cournoyer for the fastest I have ever seen in the NHL.

“Well, it’s everything he takes up with his speed,” Jagr said. “I mean, he’s the fastest skater in the league, maybe all-time.

“So that’s his advantage, and I think it’s going to show a little more, maybe, even later in the season, when other guys are getting tired.

“You know whoever’s got the legs. You can see it. Whoever’s got the legs and can skate, they kind of dominate the game later. And Larkin is one of them.”