Jagr: A Ref’s View on the Pele of Hockey

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When New Jersey Devils right winger Jaromir Jagr skates his first shift tonight in a game against the Dallas Stars, he will become just the 19th player in NHL history to appear in at least 1,480 regular season games. In his next nine games, he’ll bypass both Rod Brind’Amour and Wayne Gretzky for 17th on the NHL’s all-time games list.

Meanwhile, Jagr enters tonight two goals away from tying Mike Gartner’s 708 goals for sixth on the all-time NHL list.

Back in 2003, when I was nearing my retirement as an NHL referee, an interviewer mentioned Jagr as someone who “isn’t a Paul Stewart kind of hockey player.” I told him he was 100 percent wrong. I hd nothing but the utmost respect for Jagr, then and now. The feeling was always mutual.

I consider Jagr to be the Pele of hockey; a timeless innovator who took his sport to a higher level with his offensive ability. To say that Jagr isn’t “my” type of player is like saying I can’t appreciate Fred Astaire because he wasn’t more like John Wayne or that I probably didn’t like Robin Williams because he couldn’t take George C. Scott type of roles.

I always got along very with Jaromir when I was an active official. We could always share a laugh on the ice — I appreciated his sense of humor about the game, which is something we have in common — and he always dealt with me respectfully. He knew his business and I knew mine.

When I returned to NHL refereeing from my bout with colon cancer, my first game back — Friday, Nov. 13, 1998 — was a Penguins vs. Devils game in New Jersey. At the time, Jagr was the Penguins captain. Before the game, I skated past him and said hello. Jaromir surprised me by hugging me.

Then he said, “It doesn’t seem like hockey without you, Stewy.”

That was one of the most gracious and heartfelt tributes I’ve ever gotten from a player.

You have to understand something: It’s not like Jaromir and I are buddies who socialized off the ice or kept in touch after I retired from the ice. Hell, if we were pals, I’d have asked him back in my single days to send me the phone numbers of a few of his old European supermodel girlfriends (haha).

In all seriousness, our was strictly an on-ice relationship but it was one steeped in respect. He knew I was a former player and even knew that when I was playing, there weren’t many Americans in the NHL. More important, he knew I had a feel for the game as a referee.

People have asked me if I’m surprised that Jagr has had so much success in the NHL in his 40s after returning from the KHL. Absolutely not. He has the best core strength and leg drive of any player I’ve ever seen. He may not have the speed he did as a young player but he is still nearly impossible to muscle off the puck. He also has a burning love for the game and a great competitive drive.

When I was refereeing, I never saw Jagr embarrass the game or himself. He didn’t dive. He could disagree with a call respectfully. So what if he had long hair at the time (which was actually a declaration of freedom more than a fashion statement)? So what if he wasn’t a physical player in the sense of delivering body checks or fighting?

Some folks have said that Jagr “reinvented” himself as an older veteran player, into being someone who gives back to the game and is a good teammate. From a distance, though, I really think he’s always been essentially the same type of person. From what I could determine, he seemed like a guy with a mixture of pride and humility in his character. That is a personality type that is often misunderstood for ego.

Even way back when some hockey and media people used to call Jagr a spoiled prima donna, I thought he was a good guy at heart. There was more than one occasion when I was leaving after a game and see Jagr act graciously with fans. Coming off a multi-point game, he was the type who would stop and pat a kid on the head or give the kid a puck.

Jagr’s stint in the KHL did not overlap with my current job in the KHL. However, it is still easy to see how much impact he had on the league. When you go to the Avangard arena in Omsk, there are still photos of Jagr all around the building. The team’s fan shop still sells Jagr t-shirts and they remain a popular item.

Jagr, of course, is Czech by nationality and proudly so. He even wears Czech history on his back by his career-long choice of the number 68. But Jagr is really an institution of the game of hockey, and hockey belongs to all of us. Just like Gordie Howe and a select few others, each and every game Jagr plays is a privilege to watch simply because of his participation.

In my view, Jagr can keep playing as long as he chooses. No one is bigger than the game itself — not even the legends — but he keeps himself in such outstanding physical condition that he can truly retire on his own terms. That is the ultimate type of longevity.

Jagr doesn’t have to play in another game to be one of the all-time greats. He doesn’t need to score any more goals or continue to re-write the record book. That’s not even what drives the guy. He plays on because hockey is his life and what makes him happy. Just as important, he makes other people happy, too.

How could anyone NOT respect and admire someone who is a true living legend? Keep on keeping on, Jaromir. It just wouldn’t feel like hockey without you!

************ Paul Stewart holds the distinction of being the first U.S.-born citizen to make it to the NHL as both a player and referee. On March 15, 2003, he became the first American-born referee to officiate in 1,000 NHL games.

Today, Stewart is an officiating and league discipline consultant for the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and serves as director of hockey officiating for the ECAC.

The longtime referee heads Officiating by Stewart, a consulting, training and evaluation service for officials. Stewart also maintains a busy schedule as a public speaker, fund raiser and master-of-ceremonies for a host of private, corporate and public events. As a non-hockey venture, he is the owner of Lest We Forget. This post originally appeared on www.hockeybuzz.com and we thank them for permission to rebroadcast it here.

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Scott Harrigan
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