Niyo: Red Wings missed out on Jagr experience

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Detroit — Jaromir Jagr doesn’t spend much time playing the “what-if” game with his hockey career, mostly because he’s still busy playing NHL games at the age of 45.

Ken Holland doesn’t try, either, mostly because over two decades as general manager of the Red Wings, well, I’ll let him explain: “In my career, there’s a lot of what-might-have-beens.”

But this being Detroit, and with the Red Wings in a place where nostalgia sometimes feels preferable to the present-day reality, Wednesday felt like a time to reminisce, if only for a moment.

Jagr was in town with the Calgary Flames, his ninth NHL team in 24 seasons — and his sixth in the last seven years. And prior to the game, as he sat in the visitors’ dressing room at Little Caesars Arena, the subject inevitably turned to his return to the league back in 2011 and the start of what was essentially his second NHL career.

Jagr, a five-time NHL scoring leader and former Hart Trophy winner as league MVP with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the late-1990s and early 2000s, left the NHL nearly a decade ago to play in Russia’s KHL. But when he decided to return, the Red Wings — only a couple years removed from their last Stanley Cup Finals appearance — were at the top of a list of teams he and his agent, Petr Svoboda, targeted.

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In fact, Holland’s contract offer was the first one Jagr received that spring, not long after the Wings had gotten the phone call inquiring about their interest — Svoboda said Jagr was eager to play on a line with the Wings’ Pavel Datsyuk — and Holland had sent a couple scouts to the world championships in Slovakia that May.

“I was serious about signing him,” Holland said.

Jagr insists he was, too, and as the negotiations dragged on through June, it appeared there were two frontrunners to land the future Hall of Famer: Detroit and Pittsburgh.

“There was a big chance,” Jagr said of the Wings. “It was pretty close. … I always wanted to play with Datsyuk. Back then I could play (on a) first line, so I felt like it would be something special to be able to play with him for a whole season. But it didn’t happen.”

Just wondering

Just why it didn’t, there are no concrete answers. The Penguins had offered Jagr a one-year deal worth $2 million. Holland says he’d upped his initial $2-million ante to $2.5 million and eventually to $3 million late in the game. But after a bizarre final few days of negotiations, with fans in Pittsburgh convinced he was coming home, Philadelphia came in late with a bigger offer. And Jagr ended up signing a one-year, $3.3-million deal with the Flyers.

“I’m sure money was part of the decision,” Holland told me Wednesday, “but I don’t know what else.”

Jagr wasn’t interested in rehashing it all Wednesday, either, nor does he admit to any regrets. He said he believes in faith and fate and said with a shrug, “So I don’t really judge any decision.”

But it’s hard not to wonder, isn’t it? The Red Wings’ were still a contender back then, even though the decline certainly had begun. Brian Rafalski retired in the summer of 2011, and so did franchise mainstays Chris Osgood and Kris Draper. But Nicklas Lidstrom was coaxed into returning for another season, and Datsyuk and Zetterberg were still a dynamic duo up front. Johan Franzen scored 29 goals that 2011-12 season, and Jimmy Howard won 30 games before the All-Star break.

Throw Jagr into that mix, and who knows what happens, right? After all, this is  the NHL's second-leading scorer of all time. A guy who has averaged nearly 2.5 points per 60 minutes since 2011, a better scoring clip than Marian Hossa, for one, and fifth-best among NHL right wingers with as many games  played (446) as he has over that span.

“Our history in Detroit has been, wherever possible, you’d like to get superstars,” Holland said.

“And when you’re dealing with superstars, I don’t think age is a factor. They either can do it, or they can’t. And they can go a lot longer than everyone else because in their prime they were just significantly better than anybody else. That was Lidstrom, that was (Dominik) Hasek, that was (Chris) Chelios …”

And that’s what I asked Jagr about Wednesday after another morning skate. He’s the third-oldest player in NHL history behind Gordie Howe and Chelios, and barring injury, Jagr likely will pass Howe as the all-time leader in regular-season games played. He’s at 1,720, only 47 games behind Mr. Hockey. And he trails only Mark Messier (1,992-1,928) in league history if you include playoff games.

“He’s a legend,” Calgary assistant coach Dave Cameron said.

“And it’s pretty incredible how good he still is at his age,” said rookie center Mark Jankowski, who scored his first career goal last week against Detroit, a fluky rebound off a Jagr shot early in the Flames’ 6-3 win.

‘The game is the pleasure’

Jagr’s NHL career actually is older than both his linemates right now — Jankowski’s 23 and Sam Bennett is 21. But aside from the gray hairs, you’d have a hard time believing it, given his gregarious nature around the rink and the return of that glorious mullet last season. And if you ask Jagr to explain it, he’ll tell you he understands the same thing Chelios understood as he defied Father Time toward the end of his career.

“We didn’t mind hard work,” Jagr said, smiling. “I love practice. To me, the game is the pleasure. You just have to work harder so you can enjoy the game. ... I think Chelios was the same way.”

But it’s more than that, obviously, and Jagr knows it. So do opponents, as the 6-foot-3, 230-pound Jagr remains an offensive force, at times, even in his mid-40s.

“He’s a big, big man,” said Holland, “and when he gets the puck down low in the offensive zone, you’re not getting it off him.”

He can’t skate like he once did, but his game never really depended on that.

“You see that with a lot of guys — in your 30s, it hits you, and in two years you are out of the league,” Jagr said. “Because no one cares about two years ago. It’s, ‘What are you going to do for us right now?’ You see it around the league, even top players, all of a sudden people will question, ‘What happened?’ …

“If you’re depending on speed, you’re gonna lose it. And if somebody loses speed, they’re gonna replace them with somebody quicker. That’s why you’ve gotta have something that nobody else really has.”

He laughed, and added, “So they can’t replace you.”

It’s just a shame Detroit fans never got to find out for themselves.