At weekend packed with All-Stars, Jagr remains most revered invitee

| Friday, Jan. 29, 2016, 6:03 p.m.

NASHVILLE, Tenn.

There was no question who the most distinguished guest was when the NHL All-Star party began in earnest Friday afternoon at Bridgestone Arena.

He sat in a folding chair behind a podium in the corner of the arena's rehearsal hall, biceps bulging out of a gray T-shirt that matched the specks in his still-luxurious 43-year-old head of hair.

It was Bob Dylan chatting about songwriting. It was Steven Spielberg discussing filmmaking.

It was Jaromir Jagr holding court on All-Star media day.

“He was my hero when I'm growing up,” Penguins All-Star Evgeni Malkin said. “He's an amazing player, and he's here. It's an amazing time.”

In his youth in Pittsburgh, where he played the first 11 years of his career, Jagr was known as teen heartthrob who loved Kit Kats. These days, 24 years removed from his first All-Star appearance, the Panthers winger is the league's poet laureate.

He said he could relate to John Scott, the 6-foot-8 enforcer fans voted into this year's All-Star Game as a goof.

“I was playing on the third or fourth line with the Pittsburgh Penguins, because we had so many great players, and the fans voted me in,” Jagr said, recalling his first All-Star Game in 1992 at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. “I felt kind of embarrassed. I was ashamed. I didn't want to come. I was 19. I saw all the superstars, and I was in the starting lineup and I was playing on the fourth line in Pittsburgh. It was kind of strange. I didn't really like that feeling.”

The 13-time All-Star explained why the Florida Panthers, a surprise first-place team with a roster filled with young kids and crusty vets, were having so much success.

“When you're too old, you appreciate the game and you're happy. You do everything just to survive in the game,” Jagr said. “When you're too young, you're excited. You're young. You're very good, but you don't even know how good you are. But when you're middle aged, I think you become more selfish and think about yourself, and we don't have those kind of guys.

“You know what I'm saying? Don't sign the middle guys.”

He explained why the driving force that keeps him playing 26 years after his NHL debut isn't the chance to win a third championship.

“It's not about the Cup,” Jagr said. “It's about the whole year, spending it with the guys. It's about the games. You have to suffer everything to win it. It's not about the Cup. If somebody came to me right now and brought the Cup, I'm not going to take it. You have to earn it.”

If there's one thing Jagr has earned above anything else, it's the respect of his peers. Malkin called Jagr his hero. Kris Letang marveled at the way Jagr can play two weeks shy of his 44th birthday.

Whitehall's John Gibson and Gibsonia's Brandon Saad, mere children when Jagr was dazzling crowds at Civic Arena, were in awe.

“He's one of the guys I'm really looking forward to meeting, someone I idolized growing up,” Saad said. “It's pretty special to be here with him.”

This weekend probably represents the last chance for the younger generation to rub elbows with Jagr in an All-Star setting. He's not planning to retire. He's in such great shape he might have two or three seasons left. But he's not coming back to the All-Star Game, he said. He didn't really want to come to this one.

Not because he wanted a weekend at the beach or a chance to rest his weary muscles. Because All-Star festivities get in the way of his preparation for the second half.

“I wasn't looking for the rest,” Jagr said. “I was looking to work a little extra, go on the ice. Here, it's impossible to do it. You don't have any ice available.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter at @BombulieTrib.

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