As the Penguins retire his jersey, Jagr at 52 is still going strong on his Czech hometown team

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KLADNO, Czech Republic (AP) — The legendary mullet is gone. He’s not as quick as he used to be. And yet the way Jaromir Jagr moves on the ice belies his age and evokes memories of his glory days in the NHL.

Strong on the puck, tough to beat by the boards, precise in his passing and always in the right place to get involved in the play – Jagr, who turns 52 on Thursday, showed many of his resolute skills in a recent training session with his hometown club Kladno, for which he serves in dual roles as player and owner.

In his 36th season as a professional ice hockey player, Jagr will take a short break from the Czech league this week and travel to Pittsburgh, where he made his name in the NHL and where his No. 68 Penguins jersey will be retired at a ceremony on Sunday. Then it’s quickly back to the Czech Republic to prepare for the next game with the Kladno Knights, who are struggling in last place in the domestic league after a 17-game losing streak.

"The major issue is that (playing) is more demanding physically at my age,“ Jagr told The Associated Press in a rare interview after practice in Kladno. “If you want to play at a certain level you have to prepare, go to training, and the process of recovery is much longer.”

He said a sense of obligation for the team, which will almost certainly face a playoff to avoid relegation from the Czech league, is what keeps him going.

“A responsibility to the fans, a responsibility to the town, a responsibility to the club, that’s all,” Jagr said, seated in a skybox overlooking the rink at Kladno’s recently renovated arena.

Kladno, a former coal-mining town with a population of about 70,000 just west of the Czech capital, Prague, used to be a hockey powerhouse in Cold War-era Czechoslovakia. Local players made it to the NHL including Frantisek Kaberle Jr., Tomas Kaberle and Jakub Voracek. But no one made it bigger than Jagr, who won two Stanley Cups with the Penguins and amassed more points in the NHL than anyone except Wayne Gretzky.

Jagr was 16 when he debuted for Kladno on Sept. 13, 1988. He scored his first goal against Pardubice the following month, beating another future NHL star, goaltender Dominik Hasek.

He arrived in Pittsburgh as a well-mulleted and somewhat mysterious teenager in the fall of 1990, realizing his dream of playing alongside Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux.

As a rookie in 1991, Jagr helped the Penguins win their first Stanley Cup. Pittsburgh won it again the following year, with Jagr scoring the tying goal late in the third period of Game 1 of the final against Chicago, seven seconds of brilliance that Lemieux called one of the greatest goals he’s ever seen.

There would be many more goals — 766 of them in the regular season, fourth all-time — as part of a staggering 1,921 points, five Art Ross Trophies given to the league leading scorer and one Hart Trophy in 1999 as the NHL most valuable player.

After nearly 11 years in Pittsburgh, the financially stressed Penguins traded him to rival Washington in 2001. He spent the next 16 years essentially as an NHL vagabond, piling up points but unable to find a place where he could reproduce the postseason magic that defined his early days in Pittsburgh.

The second half of his NHL career included a brief flirtation with a return to the Penguins in 2011 only to sign with rival Philadelphia. His last stop in the NHL was the Calgary Flames which released him in 2018.

After three decades abroad, Jagr returned to Kladno to finish his career where it started. His father, a businessman, stepped in to rescue the team during the turbulent transition from communism to a market economy in the 1990s, when its main sponsor, the local steelworks, faced bankruptcy.

Jagr runs the team and plays for it — and he seems to prefer the latter. Despite the physical toll of playing top-level hockey as a fiftysomething, he said it offers a welcome break from chasing sponsors and dealing with other administrative challenges.

“For me, it’s more like going there to get some rest on the ice, to relax, to hide from all other problems,” he said. “At trainings I can think about something different and forget about the problems I have to deal with.”

Jagr's dedication impresses his teammates.

“When I leave the arena after the morning training," Kladno forward Jaromir Pytlik said, "he's the last one to leave. And when I arrive in the afternoon, he’s already there. Sometimes I think he must sleep there."

Michael Frolik, a Kladno native who was with the Flames during Jagr’s last NHL season, called Jagr’s commitment “unbelievable.”

“He’s one of the greatest who played the game, and it’s great especially for the young guys to watch how he trains and what he does," Frolik said. “It’s hard to believe what he still can do.”

The city of Kladno gave Jagr an honorary title after he helped the Czech Republic win the Olympic gold in Nagano in 1998, and he is revered by local fans, who chant his name at home games. His portrait is alongside other local greats on a banner behind one of the goals.

While the team’s poor results have prompted some questions about Jagr’s performance as Kladno’s owner, fans are delighted to see him on the ice, even though he’s picking up points at a slower rate these days – four assists in 15 games so far this season.

“Jaromir Jagr is a symbol of an absolute commitment to sport,” Kamil Stipek, a Kladno supporter wearing Jagr’s No. 68 jersey, said at a recent home game. “It was clear to him from a very young age what he wanted to do, and he sacrificed everything to achieve it. For me, he’s a Czech Gordie Howe.”

Jagr eclipsed the Canadian great as the player with the most goals after turning 40. Howe retired from the NHL in 1980 when he was 52 years, 11 days. Jagr will reach that age in two weeks, but said he isn’t yet ready to quit playing hockey — even as his jersey is raised to the rafters in Pittsburgh.

That will be a “huge honor,” Jagr said, though he stressed that he always played hockey “because I love it,” not because of trophies and individual accolades.

“I consider it a bonus to my career. Of course, I’m aware that as soon as you stop playing, the world moves forward and new waves of players come and people forget," Jagr said. "But perhaps because of this, when people come to see a game in Pittsburgh in 10 or 20 years, they will look up and see that a Jaromir Jagr used to play there.”


AP National Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh and video journalist Jan Gebert in Prague contributed to this report.