Jagr ready to pass Messier

Czech legend will be second in all-time points

13.12.2016
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Jaromir Jagr ended his international career with the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship on home ice in Prague and is still scoring high in the NHL. Photo: Andre Ringuette / HHOF-IIHF Images

Jaromir Jagr continues to make history that may never be repeated. His next feat: passing Mark Messier for second place among the all-time NHL points leaders.

The 44-year-old Czech legend currently has 1,883 points to Messier’s 1,887. It’s taken a lot of time and effort for Jagr to catch up. To put it in perspective, when Messier played his last NHL game in 2004 at age 43, John Kerry had clinched the Democratic nomination for President of the United States, and The Return of the King had just won 11 Oscars.

“He was a great skater, a great leader,” Jagr said of Messier. “He was tough to play against because he could fight. He was a pretty dirty player – the good way, obviously. The game has changed. What was legal back then wouldn’t be legal right now, but he was just a great skater. That’s what gave him a huge advantage, I would say.”

Jagr won’t surpass the NHL’s all-time scoring king, Wayne Gretzky. “The Great One” is uncatchable with 2,857 points. However, odds are no one else will edge out the Florida Panthers right wing for second place either.

His closest competition is 37-year-old Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks – who is more than 500 points behind. Among younger stars, both Alexander Ovechkin, 31, and Sidney Crosby, 29, are closing in on the 1,000-point plateau, meaning they’d need to average a point per game over a full 82-game slate for the next 10 seasons to get close. No room for injuries, work stoppages, or reduced production due to aging. That’s a long shot, especially considering that scoring in the NHL overall continues to decline.

Parallels and contrasts abound between the careers of Jagr and Messier.

In their prime, both were considered immensely strong men, noted for their passing and tremendous wrist shots, on which they relied in lieu of slappers. Jagr, though, has never had Messier’s notorious mean streak. In 1984 alone, Messier’s rap sheet included a six-game suspension for clubbing Vancouver’s Thomas Gradin with his stick and a 10-game ban for sucker-punching Calgary’s Jamie Macoun.

Both Jagr and Messier played second fiddle to an all-time great en route to their early Stanley Cups. Jagr was nicknamed “Mario Jr.” as Mario Lemieux led Pittsburgh to titles in 1991 and 1992. Messier was the second-line centre for the powerhouse Edmonton Oilers whom Gretzky captained to the Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988.

Of course, “The Moose” would grab the spotlight when he wore the C en route to Edmonton’s last Cup in 1990 and the New York Rangers’ first Cup in 54 years in 1994. As it happens, 1989/90 was Messier’s most productive single season (129 points). Jagr, who was an 18-year-old NHL rookie that year, would score even more in 1995-96, his best season (149 points).

Their individual trophy cases are both loaded, but in different ways. Jagr won five Art Ross Trophies as the NHL points champion to zero for Messier. However, Messier twice claimed the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP (1990, 1992) and Jagr just once (1999). Messier also won the Conn Smythe as the 1984 playoff MVP.

In IIHF competition, Jagr holds a clear edge. He captured gold with the Czech Republic at the inaugural “NHL Olympics” in Nagano, Japan in 1998. Messier missed that tournament since Canada chose Rob Zamuner to play on its checking line over him, and wound up fourth. Messier owns one silver medal from the 1989 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship, while Jagr, a Triple Gold Club member, has two World Championship golds (2005, 2010) and two bronzes (1990, 2011).

With that said, Messier fared better in non-IIHF-sanctioned international play. He was part of Canada’s victorious teams at the 1984, 1987, and 1991 Canada Cups.

Where the two men diverge the most is in their attitude toward playing hockey as long as humanly possible. Messier, who is still ahead of Jagr with 1,756 career games, sounded at peace when he officially retired in 2005. He told reporters: “It’s been a long career and I've achieved a lot. There was nothing really left for me to achieve.” Messier was a good rather than great player for his last seasons with Vancouver (1998-2000) and New York (2000-04).

Conversely, Jagr is trying to stay in the NHL as long as he can. He’s now on his eighth NHL club, compared to Messier’s three. He simply loves hockey that much. Whereas the 2004/05 NHL lockout helped to end Messier’s career, Jagr spent it playing for his native Kladno and for Avangard Omsk. When he returned to the NHL in 2005/06, he replaced the retired Messier as the captain of the Rangers and put up his last 100-point-plus season (129 points).

If Jagr hadn’t spent three more seasons with Omsk (2009-2011), who knows how high his point totals would be today? Nonetheless, there’s a decent chance he will become the only player not named Gretzky to surpass the 2,000-point plateau. Jagr surpassed the legendary Gordie Howe (1,850 points) for third place on 7th March.

“To me it’s like number one, because I don’t really count Wayne Gretzky,” Jagr said. “I think he was from another planet. I don’t think he was from this planet. Whatever he did is unbreakable.”

Hindsight is funny. Jagr was drafted fifth overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1990. At the time, debates raged over whether he or one of the players taken before him would turn out to be the best of the bunch: Owen Nolan (Quebec Nordiques, #1), Petr Nedved (Vancouver Canucks, #2), Keith Primeau (Detroit Red Wings, #3), or Mike Ricci (Philadelphia Flyers, #4).

Today, there’d be no debate about Jagr’s superiority. Moving past Messier is just another jewel in the crown of a legendary career.

LUCAS AYKROYD

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