On the ice, Gordie Howe was an incomparable hockey player. Off it, he’s endlessly quotable. When asked to explain how and why his infamous elbows broke so many noses, Howe instead summed up the key to success in hockey rather succinctly:
If you play a little rough, you get respect. And with respect you get just a little bit more space on the ice.
More space. The value of “a little bit more space on the ice” can hardly be overstated. An 80′ x 200′ rink with sixteen grown men going full speed leaves virtually no extra space. But when average players and good players find it, they can be great with it. Great players, meanwhile, do extraordinary things with it. The trouble is creating that space.
Among Jaromír Jágr’s greatest attributes as a hockey player is his ability to create that space.
When he was younger Jágr didn’t create space, he took it– by force. When his power as a skater combined with his incredible reach, he could take whatever space he needed from whomever he wanted. In this way Jágr was, as sportswriter Michael Farber accurately described him, a self-reliant hockey player. Now at 42 he asserts this quality less often. While that aspect of his game has changed, another aspect, one equally as effective at finding space, has not changed. As Glenn Healy noted, Jágr likes to hold on to the puck:
He won’t give it up until there is absolutely no other play, which isn’t often, because he has the ability to make something out of nothing, even a one-on-three.
With a panic point approaching zero, and with a reputation that precedes him, Jágr has always been something of an irresistible gravitational force, attracting the attention of too many opposing players. The result is that someone gets forgotten or overlooked by everyone– except Jágr.
Tonight he passed Marcel Dionne for fifth place on the NHL’s all-time points list with a goal and an assist against Carolina. The assist moves him within one of catching Steve Yzerman on the all-time assists list, and he will very likely pass Adam Oates as well, giving him sole possession of sixth place on that list, behind Paul Coffey, Ray Bourque, Mark Messier, Ron Francis, and of course Wayne Gretzky.
At 0.71 assists per game in his career, Jágr’s average is slightly better than both Messier (0.68) and Yzerman (0.70), and just slightly lower than Francis (0.72) and Bourque (0.73). He’ll be remembered for his dazzling goal-scoring, but Jaromír Jágr is an equally skilled playmaker thanks to his unique ability to create space on the ice.
Jágr the Spacemaker
For two seasons as a New York Ranger, Jágr was paired with Michael Nylander and Martin Straka, and it’s no coincidence that in those two seasons Nylander posted career highs in goals, assists and points. In fact, the trio were 1-2-3 in team scoring as well. In this clip, Straka drops the puck to Jágr, causing two Sabres to follow him into the corner. Straka quietly floats through the slot to the far side:
In this clip the Rangers have a 2-man advantage, so it’s rather easy for Straka to pull a disappearing act. Still, note that all three Senators are glued to Jágr:
Against the Capitals, Jágr manages to create a little space for Darius Kasparaitis to sneak in from the point–chiefly by suckering Alex Ovechkin deep into the defensive zone. When Ovi sees Jágr coming around the net he sees an opportunity to flatten him. Instead, he bounces off Jágr, managing only to separate him from the puck, which goes right to the streaking Kasparaitis:
Here, Doc Emrick makes a sensational call as four Devils players are watching Jágr and no one, except maybe Brodeur, is watching anyone else:
In this playoff game, Jágr stickhandles around one Thrasher then holds the attention of four, allowing Michael Nylander to slip past all of them:
When Jagr returned to the NHL in 2011, he immediately found chemistry with Claude Giroux and Chris Pronger. In fact, Giroux was in on three of Jagr’s first four points back, and Pronger was in on four of them. Here, Jagr has drawn the attention of Elias, Zubrus, and the rest of the Devils, giving Giroux plenty of space on the far side:
On the ice, Jágr’s vision is impeccable but his memory is better. In this playoff game against Pittsburgh, he remembers where Patrice Bergeron should be and sends his own rebound that way. In the process, he draws the attention of Paul Martin, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal:
Here he draws Mark Giordano, Sean Monahan and Jiri Hudler to him, and attracts the attention of T.J. Brodie long enough to make them all forget about Mike Cammalleri:
And finally, Jágr to Lemieux, 1996. What this clip lacks in video quality it makes up for in hockey brilliance. Gary Thorne understandably goes nuts as Jágr occupies three New York Rangers and holds onto the puck long enough for Lemieux to cover about 170 feet of ice. This is pure magic:
Jágr may hint now and again that he wants to play until he’s 50, but he knows he’s 42. In discussing Alex Ovechkin, Jágr told Russian Machine Never Breaks that Alex has “a lot of confidence in his shooting and he’s just waiting for the opportunity to score. I remember those years when I was hot, I was shooting everything. I don’t have it anymore.”
Still, he remains a valuable contributor. TSN’s Travis Yost crunched the numbers and concluded that contrary to pretty much the history of professional hockey players, although Jágr is getting older, his impact shift-for-shift for the Devils remains uncommonly high.
One reason for this is his ability to create that rarest of commodities, “a little bit more space on the ice”, whether for himself or for his teammates.