Jagr poised to pass Howe

How does Czech ace stack up against Mr. Hockey?

25.02.2016
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Will Czech legend Jaromir Jagr play into his ‘50s like Gordie Howe? He's about to pass 'Mr. Hockey' among the NHL's all-time scoring leaders. Photos: Andre Ringuette, Lewis Portnoy / HHOF-IIHF Images

Jaromir Jagr keeps making history. With 1,845 points, he will soon overtake Gordie Howe (1,850 points) for third place in all-time NHL scoring.

Comparing these two NHL legends is fascinating. While Jagr turned 44 on 15 February and Howe played until he was 52, stunning longevity isn’t the only point of comparison or contrast between them.

Wayne Gretzky has a special perspective. The top offensive player in hockey history is connected to both these great right wings.

“There are only a few guys who have elevated themselves to that level: Jagr, Howe, Chris Chelios, Mark Messier, Jean Beliveau,” said Gretzky. “You’ve got to be a special, special human being.”

Gretzky idolized Howe while growing up, played with him on the 1979 World Hockey Association (WHA) all-star team in a three-game series against Dynamo Moscow, and ultimately broke his NHL records for career goals, assists, and points.

As for Jagr, he was the only player besides Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to win the NHL scoring title between 1981 and 2001. The huge Czech forward won Olympic gold in Nagano, Japan in 1998 – the only Winter Games in which Gretzky competed. Jagr also scored the overtime winner for the Pittsburgh Penguins in Gretzky’s final NHL game with the New York Rangers on 18 April 1999.

Gretzky knows what drove Jagr and Howe to excel.

“Parents will come up to me and say, ‘Will you tell my son how many hours a day he needs to practise?’” said Gretzky. “I always say the same thing: ‘I didn’t practise. I just had a passion for the game. I loved it. I did it all day long.’ And those guys, like Gordie Howe, Jagr, and Messier, that’s what they do. They just love everything about the game.”

Jagr and Howe laid their foundation early on.

Both the kid from Kladno and “Mr. Hockey” developed their prodigious physical strength with manual labour. Jagr built up his huge forearms by working on his family farm for seven hours a day. When he came to his first Penguins training camp at age 18, he stunned older teammates by doing the maximum 120 pounds (54 kilograms) on the grip-strength test – compared to their 60 pounds (27 kilograms) or 80 (36 kilograms).

As a 16-year-old in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Howe worked on construction jobs with his father and could hoist a 90-pound (41-kilogram) cement bag with either hand.

That physical strength translated into very different kinds of toughness in the NHL. Jagr, although renowned for fighting off checking with his massive body, has never recorded an NHL fighting major. On the other hand, the “Gordie Howe hat trick” is considered to be a goal, an assist, and a fight. Howe actually had two “Gordie Howe hat tricks” during his career, and was also known for using his elbows and stick to intimidate opponents.

Howe had a famous archrival right through the 1950s: Maurice “Rocket” Richard of the Montreal Canadiens. That rivalry was physical, bitter, and intense. With the Detroit Red Wings, Howe would eventually break Richard’s NHL goal-scoring record (544) with his 545th career tally against the Canadiens on 10 November 1963. Jagr, however, has never been paired in the popular imagination with a rival in the tradition of Gretzky versus Mario Lemieux or Sidney Crosby versus Alexander Ovechkin.

Interestingly, Howe’s best offensive season was 1968/69 with the Detroit Red Wings when he was 41 (103 points in 76 games). Jagr’s best offensive season was 1995/96 with Pittsburgh when he was just 24 (149 points in 82 games).

Howe, now 87, turned out to be the consummate family man. He and his wife Colleen were married for 56 years (1953-2009). He had four children, including two sons in the NHL, Mark and Marty. Mark was also a 1972 Olympic silver medallist with the United States, and scored 742 points in 929 NHL games as a defenceman en route to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Jagr has never married, and although he has been connected to various Czech models over the years, he is now more famous for living and breathing hockey 24/7.

Howe’s trophy case contains more NHL hardware than Jagr’s. He won four Stanley Cups to Jagr’s two, six Hart Trophies as NHL MVP to Jagr’s one, and six Art Ross Trophies as the NHL’s leading scorer to Jagr’s five.

On the other hand, Jagr is more accomplished in international hockey. He’s an IIHF Triple Gold Club member. In addition to being an Olympic champion, he’s won two World Championships (2005 and 2010) and numerous other IIHF medals.

Of course, Howe’s prime years were long before NHLers began playing in international events regularly. He did suit up for Canada’s WHA all-stars in the 1974 Summit Series, where the Soviets prevailed with four wins, three ties, and one loss.

Financially, Jagr has reaped far more rewards than Howe in his career, even factoring in inflation. Currently on a one-year deal with the Florida Panthers, Jagr’s earnings top $130 million through 2015/16.

To put things in perspective, Howe’s signing bonus with Detroit as a rookie in 1946/47 was a Red Wings team jacket. Even as an established great, he found out that in 1968, when he was making $50,000, just-acquired Wings defenceman Bobby Baun’s salary was $67,500.

Both superstars chased the big money by jumping later in their careers to leagues set up to rival the NHL. From 1973/74 to 1978/79, Howe suited up for the WHA’s Houston Aeros and New England Whalers. Jagr, who had already spent the 2004/05 NHL lockout with the KHL’s Avangard Omsk, went back to that Russian city from 2008/09 to 2010/11.

In matters of pop culture, Jagr arguably holds the edge. In the 1990s he had hockey’s most famous hairdo with his flowing mullet, which he’s revived this season. Howe’s hair was always conservative, although he sported slightly longer sideburns in the 1970s in keeping with the fashion.

Cinematically, Jagr was depicted briefly in the 1995 hockey-themed thriller Sudden Death with Jean-Claude Van Damme, while Howe (portrayed by Canadian actor Michael Shanks) grabbed the TV movie spotlight in 2013s Mr. Hockey: The Gordie Howe Story.

Of course, Jagr’s story isn’t over yet. If he stays healthy and motivated, he could pass Howe’s all-time record for NHL games (1,767) in 2017/18. Howe’s all-time goals total (801), second only to Gretzky's, is also theoretically within reach.

And how does The Great One feel about all of this?

“Good for Jaromir,” said Gretzky. “It’s a great story. He’s playing unreal. First of all, I’m good friends with him, so I’m very, very happy for him. He loves it. Gosh, I hope he plays another five years!”

LUCAS AYKROYD

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