Jaromir Jagr was on the ice at Nationwide Arena last night. Somewhere in the stands, there was a lad watching him, a lad who will grow old and tell his grandchildren, “Yeah, I saw Jagr.”
Columbus missed Wayne Gretzky, who retired in 1999. We saw Mario Lemieux, though, and Mark Messier, Ron Francis, Steve Yzerman, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. They are among the greatest players in the 98 years of NHL history. They mark time.
Jagr played in his 1,400th career game last night. His New Jersey Devils lost to the Blue Jackets 4-1, but Jagr had an assist on his team’s goal, the 1,694th point of his career. Only seven players have more points.
Jagr is 41 years old. Yesterday morning, he said, “I want to play until I’m 50, but maybe not here.”
Jagr remains an A-list superstar in Europe and could be the Gordie Howe of the East if he so chose. Will he? Or, is he kidding? He smiled his famous smile, the one that used to tick off opponents in the days when a curly mane flowed from the back of his helmet.
“I enjoy playing more now more than ever because I appreciate it more,” Jagr said. “I understand more. I’m happier inside than I’ve ever been — I just don’t show it as much.”
Jagr had 387 goals before Blue Jackets wing Marian Gaborik was drafted in 2000. Jagr has 683 goals now. He leads all active scorers in every major statistical category. He is 10th on the NHL career goal-scoring list and is in range of catching Lemieux, Yzerman and Messier this season. He needs 25 goals to move up to sixth place.
“He’s still one of the best,” Gaborik said. “He has still got it.”
Jagr’s new teammate, Martin Brodeur, 41, was not in goal last night. Maybe he will be the next time the Devils play here on Dec. 10. We can only hope.
“It might be our last look at one of the greatest goaltenders to play the game — maybe even the greatest.
“It needs to be enjoyable,” Brodeur said. “At our age, we don’t need to play hockey; we want to play hockey. When that is taken away, then you make your decision when to go.”
Brodeur is the NHL’s career leader in victories, losses, shutouts and games played for goalies. He is the only goalie in league history to register eight 40-victory seasons. He has won four Vezina Trophies and three Stanley Cups.
Brodeur’s first child was born two weeks before he won his first Cup, in 1995. Last June, Brodeur stepped up to the podium at the draft, in Newark, N.J., and announced that the Devils had taken Anthony Brodeur with the 208th pick. Last month, before Anthony was shipped back to his junior-league team, father and son shared a locker room in training camp.
“That was special,” Brodeur said.
He got a sense of what father/teammate means, literally. Brodeur and Jagr already have a sense of what it means metaphorically. It is one of the secrets to their longevity, understanding who they are and sharing what they have learned.
“There’s a lot to be said for being a guy who is counted upon,” Brodeur said. “To see other kids taking that role is very rewarding for an older player. Like, to me, the first Cup was one thing. The second thing is to see other guys achieving their goals. It’s mentoring, I guess. It’s very satisfying.”
Under the league’s formerly imbalanced schedule, we had to wait — sometimes for years — to see the great players in the other conference. Under the new format, every team visits every building. Some players you want to see, just to say that you saw.
On Sunday, the Anaheim Ducks make their only appearance of the season at Nationwide Arena. It likely will be our last look at Teemu Selanne, 43, who smiles a lot, like Jagr does, and Brodeur does. Their kind is rare. Enjoy them while you can.
Michael Arace is a sports reporter for The Dispatch.