November 14, 2017
I was in the middle of nowhere - some 30,000 feet above eastern Canada - and I was staring at Jaromír Jágr.
I'm watching him use Derek MacKenzie's iPad. He's playing Bejeweled or some s***. Derek has two kids under the age of 10, so his iPad is filled with all these games. Jágs, with no headphones on, is powering through levels before we touch down.
He's 43. At this point in the season, he's leading our first-place Panthers team in points. And he's swiping his fingers across the iPad screen like a kid on a family road trip.
I'm watching him like, Man, I've looked up to this guy my whole life. And here he is, playing Bejeweled.
I remember being like seven years old, just hoping to catch a glimpse of Jágs around my neighborhood in Pittsburgh. His house wasn't far from where I grew up, but he was elusive. Other kids on my street used to tell me they'd see him from time to time, but I never laid eyes on the mullet. The Penguins were past their glory days of the early '90s - things weren't what they used to be. But we had Jágs.
And then, yeah, two decades later I'm watching him playing Bejeweled on our team plane. Sick.
Alright, Internet, you ready for more random Jágs stories? Some Team North America memories? And some shameless Panthers hype?
First, I gotta tell ya' about being a shovel boy at the Joe.
When I was 13, my parents decided the best chance for me to develop as a hockey player was to move from Pittsburgh to Detroit - which had like, a dozen youth hockey programs.
So in 2006 we moved. And two years later, as fate would have it, Pittsburgh sort of followed me: The Pens played the Wings in the Cup final. I was lucky enough to be a "shovel boy" at the Joe during the Wings' season that year. But the games I shoveled never lined up with when the Pens were in town. I was hoping this would finally be the time I got to see their two new superstars - Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin - up close. But it wasn't meant to be. The Joe called on the older shovel boys for the finals.
Even the next year, during the rematch, I was left off the shovel boy roster.
But I still watched at home in Detroit. I was living with my teammate Tyler Murray - Mr. Ilitch's grandson - and his family. So I was half-rooting for the Pens and half-rooting for the Wings. I remember Max Talbot scoring two goals in Game 7 in 2009, and the Pens getting one shot on net in the third period as they were hanging on. I remember that save by Marc-André Fleury.
I never made it to a game either year, but I remember watching Sid lifting the Cup and wondering what the kids who used to chase Jágs were doing in the street now.
Five years later I was in the NHL with the Florida Panthers, and Jágs - who was on the Devils at the time - was chasing me.
My first goal was an empty-netter (please don't tell anyone that) and number 68 was right behind me when I scored - he even gave me a little one-handed slash after it went in.
I never thought I'd play against Jágs, let alone score against his team.
Hell, I never even thought I'd see him in the street. He was such a legend, he almost didn't seem real.
Almost exactly a year after that goal, in February of 2015, I was scrolling through Instagram, as you do, between sets at the gym with my trainer on one of our off days. I saw a pic of Jágs photoshopped into a Panthers jersey with the headline: JÁGR TRADED TO FLA.
That was the best trade deadline-day news I've ever heard.
When he first got to Florida, Jágs was a little quiet. He's very serious about the game. He didn't say too much and I was a bit nervous about approaching him. I would watch him in practice like, Man, he's ... slow. But then you're on the ice with him, doing a drill, and he's always in the right spot. You turn your back on him for one second and he's in front of the net or calling for a pass in the slot. He's sort of like magic.
Our team ended the '14-15 season strong. And the next year was the best full season of hockey I've ever had in my life. During that 12-game win streak we had, our locker room was a blast. We'd always have music going after every win, with different guys picking the playlist. I remember, after one of our wins, somebody asked Jágs what he wanted to hear.
You turn your back on him for one second and he's in front of the net or calling for a pass in the slot. He's sort of like magic.
He said, "Poison."
Everybody cracked up.
"No ... I'm serious. Put on Poison."
He's a great hockey player but a terrible DJ.
I guess every rose has its thorn.
That season didn't end the way we wanted in New York. But, man, watching our team grow was so cool. I saw more Panthers jerseys on the beach in Sunrise than I had ever seen before. The crowds at our rink were electric.
That summer, all I wanted to do was get back to Florida and improve on that season. But then I started hearing about the World Cup of Hockey and I was sort of thinking, What is this? During September? I don't know if this is going to work.
Then I heard I wouldn't be representing a country, just an age group. It was a little weird, but I was incredibly honored to play along some of the unbelievable talent that team had.
And holy s***, Team North America was the sickest (the sickest) team of all-time (of all-time) and you can fight me about that. Our first two exhibition games we played Team Europe ... and we made them look silly. We scored 11 goals in two games and sometimes we were completely unplayable. Connor McDavid ripping down the wing with Auston Matthews and Mark Scheifele.
What are you going to do about that?
We thought we could do some serious damage in the tournament. The last game in Team North America history (R.I.P) was the best. We thought we just had to win against Sweden to get into the next round. It went into OT. -; at the Air Canada Centre - tied at 3-3. It was the Sedin twins and Erik Karlsson against Johnny Gaudreau, Nathan MacKinnon and Morgan Rielly to start the extra frame.
If somebody in your life isn't a hockey fan, make them watch that OT.
Basically it's insane. With a minute to go John Gibson, our goalie (and another Pittsburgh kid), makes a huge save on Daniel Sedin and we come back the other way. MacKinnon ends up with the puck all alone in front of Henrik Lundqvist and he undresses him. I mean, watch this:
Forehand, backhand, toe-drags the pokecheck, then roofs it - with a sick celly to boot.
Awesome. Just awesome. And we celebrated like we won the Cup. Because we thought we were through to the next round. Turns out we needed to win in regulation, though. Not making it out of the group stage was such a bummer. All we wanted was to play Team Canada, because we thought we could show the hockey world something special.
I'm not sure how everyone in the hockey community felt about the tournament - but being a part of Team NA was truly an amazing experience. I think people are going to look back on that group in 20 years and just be like, Uh ... what? All those guys played on one team?
The vibe around that group was special. I think about it a lot, because the team we have down here in Florida reminds me of them.
Look, I know, last year was tough. It was just one of those seasons. We had a lot of injuries to key players and things didn't go our way. I'm disappointed with how I played, too. I felt I didn't have the consistency that I had at the end of the season in 2016. I worked really hard this summer to fix that.
Coming into camp this year, it's clear our entire organization is in a much better place. It feels like a fresh start. New coaching staff, some new faces and even some new jerseys. Everyone has to re-prove himself to Coach Boughner and we've got a really healthy environment. And, to be honest, I feel like people just don't pay attention to what we have because we're down here in Sunrise.
Like, how's Aleksander Barkov not a bigger deal to you guys on the Internet?
Dude is one of the best two-way centers in the entire world. He's like Anže Kopitar with more skill (no disrespect to Anže, Barkie is just that good). He's got hands like Patrick Kane and, oh yeah, he's 6'3″ and 210 pounds. You can't stop that.
Ridiculous. And he scored more shootout goals than anyone else last year. He can do whatever he wants with the puck.
Barkie is good at anything he puts his mind to. He's second in our team's fantasy football league. I'm in first (humble brag). Roberto Luongo is in the third. (He knows more about the NFL than most NFL players.) And in second is a 22-year-old Finn who refuses to be bad at anything he does. That's Barkie.
He and Jonathan Huberdeau are as good of a one-two punch as you'll find in the league. Hubie has so much swag, man. I wish I could give you a comparison with another player in the league, but there isn't one. He's his own monster.
Our offense is just getting going this season. We have confidence to keep trying things and improving our approach because of the guys behind us, like Aaron Ekblad.
Aaron, again, is another elite player. I can tell right away when people talk about him whether they actually watch him play or not. They'll be like, "He's truly a great defensive defenseman," or, "The league needs more shutdown guys like Ekblad." Here's the thing: Aaron has that Karlsson-level skill. He really does. He doesn't use it all the time, and he's still learning his own game (he's 21!), but he's not some stay-at-home shutdown guy.
I just ... I feel like you're sleeping on this team here in Sunrise.
Like I said, everything is new this year, and we're coming together. It's going to take a little time but we've got our core now and we feel really, really good about the future.
Our team is a tight-knit group. When we go out for meals on road trips, we have to call ahead and make a reservation for 40 because we don't have any cliques or anything like that. Our leadership group is really strong and it's a healthy atmosphere for our young guys to keep developing.
We know we have a lot to experience as a young team. (Including welcoming Jágs back in January ... with some Poison maybe?) But we're ready to compete. We want to battle at the top of the division. We want to win a playoff series, and we know we're capable of it.
And, hey, I've still never been to a Stanley Cup Final game.
COURTESY: Vincent Trocheck - The Players' Tribune