With a big grin and a quick start to his Olympics, 38-year-old Jaromir Jagr is flirting with a return to the NHL.
The two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh and 18-year veteran of the league until he left for Russia’s top professional division in 2008 seemed delighted Friday night by the idea of a return season in North America, after he scored again for the Czech Republic in its 5-2 victory over Latvia.
"They treat me so well in Russia, but at the same time, maybe I want to try to play here," a shrugging Jagr said while being far more expansive and engaging than he’d been in his initial days of the Vancouver Games.
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Jagr confirmed his two-year contract worth about $7 million tax-free to play for Avangard Omsk of the Russian Kontinental Hockey League ends this year, with no option years to negotiate.
The man who ranks ninth on the NHL list with 1,599 points (646 goals, 953 assists) in 1,273 career games split between the Penguins, Capitals and Rangers said for now he is focused on getting his Czech team ready for Sunday’s showdown with rival and tournament co-favorite Russia.
"And when we get back (to Russia) we have to start the playoffs," he said. "Then, I have to make a decision. If it happens, it happens."
His formerly flowing mane is now much shorter – unlike during his Pittsburgh heyday, one can easily see his name on the back of his Czech jersey. And the stubble on his chin now looks as much like salt as pepper.
"Hey, it’s not gray. I just did it to make me look older," Jagr joked.
Yet his game still looks young.
"Up to now, he’s played very well," Czech Republic coach Vladimir Ruzicka said through an interpreter. "And I believe his time will still come. We still expect more."
Jagr scored his second goal in two games on a wicked slap shot that zinged over the shoulder of Latvia’s helpless goaltender. He later aggressively locked an arm around the back of the neck of a Latvian in front of the Czech goal, drawing a holding penalty. Latvia converted the ensuing power play to get within 4-2.
He spent some of the third period on the bench playfully joking with and slapping the shoulder of teammate Roamer Cervenka. Then Jagr sped past three defenders at least 10 years younger before sending one of his team-high seven shots into the side of the net.
Late in the game he gathered his own rebound, zoomed around the back of the net and thought he had his third goal of the Olympics on a quick backhand – until Latvia goalie Edgars Masalskis made a diving save.
A handful of other, similar rushes in his 16:37 of playing time bolstered Jagr’s postgame claim that practicing and playing on bigger ice in Russia have made him a better player than he was for the New York Rangers in 2007-08.
"I think after the two years I’ve spent in Russia I can be a better player than I was when I left," he said. "I know that."
Jagr was drafted fifth overall by the Penguins in 1990. The NHL held that year’s draft at BC Place, a domed stadium next door to Canada Hockey Place.
Asked if maybe coming back "here" meant to Vancouver, to truly complete his NHL life cycle, Jagr chuckled and smiled some more.
"I don’t know," he said. "I love Russia. I love the NHL. Whatever happens, happens."