The 51-Year-Old Hockey Star Who Won’t Quit

KLADNO, Czech Republic — The boisterous fans in the standing section at CEZ Stadion unfurled a giant banner last week. It bore the unmistakable, bearded likeness of Rytiri Kladno’s owner, as fans across the arena serenaded him and presented him with a birthday cake after the game.

Owners of sports teams rarely enjoy such adoration, but this one is Jaromir Jagr, who is also one of Kladno’s best players: Not just in its history, but now, in 2023, at age 51.

“He is not the player he once was, of course, but he is still good,” said Vojtech Absolin, who conducts the fan chorus, “and he means everything to the club.”

Still good, Jagr was once truly great, starring in the N.H.L. over 24 seasons on nine teams, winning two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, collecting a Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player in the 1998-99 season and tallying 1,921 points, second only to Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857.

Among the many accomplishments reached by older athletes recently — from Tom Brady’s retirement at 45, Serena Williams’s at 40 and LeBron James’s reaching the N.B.A. career scoring summit at 38 — Jagr stands out, not because he is playing in his 35th consecutive season of professional hockey, but because he does so for a cause.

He spent his 51st birthday in February distributing crisp passes, fending off opponents with his bulky backside, handing out the occasional crosscheck and pushing Kladno to a critical win late in the season.

But Jagr, whose teammates are mostly in their 20s, is more than an aging athlete stubbornly clinging to a fading career. He is a savior of sorts, a national treasure from modest Kladno who bears the very existence of his struggling club, and by extension this postindustrial town, atop his sturdy shoulders, much as his father did before him.

At 51, Jagr is more than an aging athlete stubbornly clinging to a fading career. He still plays because he loves the game and because he can.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times
The Kladno neighborhood where Jagr grew up.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

“I would never have been a hockey player if it was not for this town and this club,” Jagr said last week, an hour after a tough overtime loss. “I would be a totally different person. This club and this city made my life. It’s my responsibility to give it back.”

Jagr’s play helps the team stave off the threat of relegation from the Czech Republic’s top hockey league and bankruptcy; keeps badly needed money flowing from sponsors, many of whom prefer to be associated with his name and likeness, rather than the last-place club. Mostly, Jagr still plays because he adores it, because he can, and because he loves to eat.

Jagr’s playing weight in the N.H.L. was roughly 240 pounds. These days he is between 265 and 270 pounds, he said, but like retirement, dieting is not in his immediate future.

“First of all, it’s fun,” he said while scarfing down a ham sandwich in the modest V.I.P. lounge of the newly renovated, city-owned stadium in Kladno. “Second, if you stop, you are going to get fat and unhealthy and get surgeries on back, knees and hips. I would crash down. I see it on everybody else. I’m not doing that. I want to have a happy life, so I’m going to work hard until I die, because it’s the only way.”

Hard work has long defined Jagr, beginning when he was a child on his family’s farm. His hockey workouts are legendary, and he enhances them now by practicing with a 25-pound stick, ankle weights and a weighted vest; shooting six-inch go-kart tires across the ice; and stickhandling in a pool to increase resistance.

“He’s a different kind of animal,” said Landon Bow, Kladno’s goalie, who is from St. Albert, Alberta. “He’s a little crazy like that.”

Playing road hockey outside the stadium in Kladno.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

In Bow’s two years in Kladno, he has seen Jagr’s impact.

“Without him, I don’t know if there is a team here,” Bow said. “He’s pouring in hours of work to make sure everything is up and running. We don’t have the biggest budget, but he’s making sure we have sponsors and we have a team. It’s his baby, and it’s amazing to see how much people love him.”

The Pittsburgh of the Czech Republic

With its quaint, medieval city center, modern residential flats and outer farmland, Kladno was once a thriving industrial (and hockey) center of Europe. Known for its mines and the great Poldi steel works, which Karl Wittgenstein (father of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) opened in 1889, it sits less than 20 miles northwest of old Prague.

Under the postwar Communist regime, the steel factory sponsored the club and Poldi Kladno enjoyed a small dynasty, winning five national championships from 1975 to 1980, behind Milan Novy, perhaps the second-best player in Czech hockey history.

“This city has got such a big history,” Jagr said.

Kladno’s population during that period was about 50,000, and roughly 20,000 worked at Poldi. But when the Communist government fell in 1989, the factory, unprepared for the free market, collapsed. People sought work elsewhere, especially in Prague and at the airport that sits between the two cities. The factory buildings still stand, but only a fraction are in use, by a few small companies.

Jan Ulrych, 46, a data analyst who lives in Kladno, takes his son to the occasional game. He recounted the handful of occasions that he and family members have spotted Jagr out and about in the city of 70,000. He gestured at the quiet, orderly streets, mostly empty on weekends.

“I always thought it was an ugly, industrial town with nothing going on,” he added. “But I found out that it’s not that bad. Jagr being back, maybe it helps a bit, too.”

Jagr grew up about a 10-minute drive north of the arena, not far from the old steel plant, in a section of Kladno called Hnidousy. Jagr drew a map to help a reporter locate his old house, marking a tree to one side and a small schoolhouse across the road.

His grandfather owned the farm, but most of it was confiscated by the hated, Soviet-backed Communist government that took over after World War II. Jagr’s grandfather was imprisoned for refusing to willingly hand over the land, and died in 1968, the same year Warsaw Pact tanks rumbled into the country to crush a growing independence movement. It is why Jagr still wears No. 68.

Kladno players warmed up before their game.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times
Jagr chose Kladno’s name, Rytiri, and its logo to honor his Orthodox faith.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

Jagr’s father also grew up on the farm, and worked on it almost every day, until cancer forced him to stay home. He died in November at 82, and Jagr describes his father as the artist who painted him into the man he is now.

Miroslav Hlavacek is a co-owner of a small company that installs road signs and is headquartered in a makeshift supply and equipment depot next to Jagr’s old house. A Rytiri Kladno fan, he knew Jagr’s father casually, enough to say hello when he passed by.

“Always on a tractor,” he said, using a translating app on his phone.

Jagr’s father also owned a successful building company, but farming invigorated him. While many said he was allocating precious time tending to cows, instead of his more lucrative building company, he did what he loved. Jagr similarly seeks refuge from running both the building company he inherited from his dad and the hockey club in his lifelong passion — playing the game.

“Playing is like a freedom for me and it was the same for my dad,” he said. “The farm was freedom for him because he knew it. He didn’t have to think about it. I don’t have to think how to play, how to practice. I’ve done it over and over since I was 4. I’m kind of running away from the other stuff, for this.”

Jagr marveled that his parents never took a vacation, and that ethos was imprinted on him. As a boy, he worked on the farm every day, mostly collecting huge bales of grass from a neighboring field to feed the cows.

“That is why I was so strong,” he said. “It was like going to the gym every day for five hours. Even when I was 18, I felt like I was going to be the strongest in the N.H.L., because it was such hard work. We had to do it every day, doesn’t matter if it rains. Summer was the hardest, because you have to get the food for the winter, too. From the morning, you just work until night.”

Jagr on the bench for the Penguins in 2001, his last season in Pittsburgh.Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Obviously, he also found time to skate, and his first two professional seasons were spent with Kladno when he was 16 and 17. From there, taken fifth overall in the 1990 N.H.L. draft, he went straight to the Penguins. Jagr burst into North American arenas with his signature mullet, magnetic smile and beguiling skill, helping the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup alongside Mario Lemieux, then helping them win a second the following season.

Back in Kladno, things were not as flashy. Without the support of the Poldi factory to bolster payroll, the hockey club faced bankruptcy. The city begged Jagr’s father to buy the team lest it move or dissolve; so he did. But Kladno still struggled over the ensuing decade to compete with powerhouse teams in Prague and Brno, and money was a constant concern.

“He wanted to sell it, but that would mean it would move, and the whole city would go crazy,” Jagr said. “So, the mayor asked if I would support it. I couldn’t say no.”

This was in 2011. Jagr was finishing a three-year stint with Avangard Omsk in Russia, having left the N.H.L. after he couldn’t get a contract to his liking. He had only six weeks to secure sponsorships and public funding for his father’s hockey club before flying to the United States to make his N.H.L. return with the Philadelphia Flyers, but he pulled it off. After his final N.H.L. game, with the Calgary Flames on New Year’s Eve in 2017, Jagr returned home to give his undivided attention to Kladno.

Fighting to Stay in the League

Jagr, who has played each season for Kladno since 2018, chose the new name, Rytiri, meaning knight, and the new logo of a bearded nobleman with a cross on his helmet, to honor his Orthodox faith.

The college-suitable arena is tucked between a soccer stadium and a tiny wood. Some fans walk to games along nearby train tracks, bundled in scarves bearing images of Jagr and wearing team jerseys, most with Jagr’s No. 68.

Tasty, red klobasy sizzle on a grill next to the main entrance, and are sold with a splotch of brown mustard on a plate and a slice of rye bread.

As the regular season neared its end, Kladno fought for victories that could keep it from relegation.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times
Vojtech Absolin, right center, led Rytiri Kladno fans in chants during a game against Olomouc.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

Last week started well for the Knights, with two wins that pulled them out of last place in the 14-team Czech Extraliga. Against Mlada Boleslav, on Jagr’s birthday, the 4,000-seat arena, while not sold out, still pulsated, especially in the standing terrace behind one of the goals, where the home fans sing and cheer in unison throughout games.

Ticket sales account for only 15 percent of revenue, Jagr said, and the rest is secured through sponsorships and municipal assistance. But the fans are passionate. Tomas Plekanec, who played 15 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, was one of them. Plekanec, who at 39 is the team’s second-oldest player, grew up here and played his first professional seasons for Kladno. He now centers the first line, with Jagr on his right wing, and wearing the captain’s “C” on his shirt.

“It’s just a letter,” Plekanec said after a recent practice. “He’s the owner. He’s the go-to guy for this organization, and this town.”

The Knights are in last place, trailing by a point with two games left. If they finish at the bottom, they must win a seven-game playoff against the second-division champion, or be relegated to the lower league, where it is that much harder to attract sponsors.

To meet the challenge, Jagr practices every day, even when the team does not. At the same time, he is in meetings, fretting over cash flow and directing the development of 400 youth players under the club’s umbrella.

Jagr in a scrappy game against Olomouc. Some fans have grumbled that he gets preferential treatment from referees.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

“I can see it all worries him,” said Zdenek Janda, a reporter for Denik Sport and Isport, who has covered Jagr for 20 years. “Playing is his release, and he is still good, even at 51. There were games this year when he was the best player on the ice. I think he could play until he is 65.”

In February, Jagr scored his fourth goal in 22 games. It was his 1,100th professional goal, including international play, giving him two more than Gretzky for most professional goals.

Sponsors love the international attention the occasion drew. But if Jagr stopped playing, would they go away?

“Yeah, most of them,” he said with a grim laugh.

With no major corporations in Kladno, Jagr is arguably the city’s greatest resource. David Spiller, a taxi driver, said Jagr is the Czech Republic’s most famous citizen worldwide. Spiller, 51, called him “the savior of Kladno and the sport we love,” and estimated Jagr was better-known globally than even Vaclav Havel, the writer, statesman and president from 1989 to 2003.

“There are people in this country who will tell you Jagr is God,” Spiller said. “Of course, Havel was very important. But that was for a short time. Jagr is still playing.”

Many of Kladno’s sponsors would most likely abandon the team if he stopped playing, Jagr said.Credit…Nina Riggio for The New York Times

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