Jagr battles rust, fatigue in first skate with Flames
CALGARY — Jet lag, altitude, a summer in limbo and age all had Jaromir Jagr bending over to catch his breath a lot in his first skate as a Calgary Flame.
The 45-year-old right-winger, who had arrived in Calgary from his native Czech Republic the previous day, was frank in his assessment of himself Thursday.
“Not very good,” Jagr said. “I’m glad I survived this practice. Hopefully tomorrow I feel better than today.”
Calgary’s home- opener is Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets before the Flames head out on a two-game road trip to California.
Jagr’s arrival in a Canadian NHL market in his 24th, and what he says is likely last, NHL season is generating a buzz in Calgary.
If he plays 57 games this season, he’ll pass Gordie Howe for the most played in a career (1,767).
Jagr’s much-anticipated debut in the flaming ‘C’ may have to wait, however.
“If I’m not going to be ready, I think it’s not very smart to put me out there,” he said.
He has Friday’s practice and Saturday’s pre-game skate to try and get his game legs under him. Flames head coach Glen Gulutzan trusts Jagr’s judgment of his game fitness.
“I think he’s got enough games in the league to figure out when he’s going to be completely ready,” Gulutzan said. “We talked about that and I said ‘you’ve got to let me know how you’re feeling.’ ”
Second only to Wayne Gretzky in all-time NHL scoring with 1,914 points, Jagr said not knowing if he would play in the NHL again made for a awkward off-season.
He and the Flames didn’t agree on a one-year, US$1-million contract until Sunday.
“I didn’t know if I was going to play in the NHL again. I didn’t practise with any team. I was practising and I didn’t see any future,” Jagr explained. “It’s kind of tough, especially at my age, it’s not easy for anybody to practise on their own, but not to see much future.
“If I’d stayed in Europe, I would have probably taken a month to get ready before I play some games. Now I cannot do that. It’s a challenge and that’s why I have to go day by day. Hopefully it’s going to come back quick.”
Jagr may have felt in low gear Thursday, but the introduction of a future Hall of Famer into their midst was a welcome lift for the Flames.
Without Jagr in the lineup, Calgary had fallen 3-0 to the host Edmonton Oilers — giving up a hat trick to Connor McDavid — less than 24 hours earlier in the season-opener for both clubs.
“With Jags coming in here today, certainly it gave us another day where I didn’t think we’d get this quality of practice,” Gulutzan observed.
“He works hard and has that effect on a team. Guys want to show him ‘I can play.’ ”
Jagr skated on a line with centre Sam Bennett, 21, and left-winger Kris Versteeg, 31. Jagr talked to Bennett a lot.
“It’s pretty cool. He’s a legend,” Bennett said. “Just having him be out there and give me pointers, give me advice, it means a ton coming from a guy like that. It was a really cool practice for me.”
Goaltender Mike Smith was given the day off after facing 44 shots, including a few off the head, in his first game as a Calgary Flame on Wednesday.
Jagr didn’t arrive in time to join his new team in Edmonton, so he watched the game on television.
A five-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer, he marvelled at McDavid’s performance.
“McDavid is just too good,” Jagr said. “If he would learn how to score on a breakaway a little more, I think he’ll score 150 in a season. For him to score 100, it’s possible.
“With his speed in this game right now, where you cannot hold anybody up, it’s very dangerous. Probably Wayne and Mario ( Lemieux) were the same way, but you could grab them and hold them with a stick.”