By: Michael Pina
In 1990, Jaromir Jagr was an 18-year-old NHL rookie who appeared in
80 games and notched 57 points. Impressive tallies for someone so young
(the 57 points is ninth highest in NHL history for someone that age), and a
hopeful sign that Jagr’s career would, at the very least, qualify as modestly
Instead of “modestly successful”, what we’ve seen over the past two decades
has been an endless stream of goals, wins, and unforgettable performances.
Jagr is arguably the most accomplished European born player in the history
of his sport, and even though his days of leading the league in points are
over (by the way, something he’s done five times in his career),
Jagr’s still talented enough to be viewed as an effective player for any team
that’s serious about winning.
Today he’s 40, still playing, still thriving. Still making defenses wish
he’d stayed in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League (where he spent three
seasons during the late 2000s) instead of making a return to the NHL.
How remarkable is it for anyone to compete at the highest level of athletics
against people who weren’t even born when he entered the league? Why
isn’t Jagr’s ongoing career a bigger deal? He isn’t toiling around looking to
cling onto a contender’s belt. Instead, Jagr’s set to offer major minutes for a playoff-
contending team and provide a mentoring role to the young players on the team.
The Dallas Stars headed into this season with big expectations. Spending
over $4 million in valuable cap space money on Jagr shows two things: 1)
There was competition for his services, 2) They still think he can contribute.
There have been 54 players in NHL history to take the ice at 40 years or
older, and six of them are active (including Jagr).
Jagr’s only real contemporary is the boundless Teemu Selanne, a future
first ballot Hall of Fame 42-year-old right-winger who’s continuing to
overachieve in Anaheim. Last year, at the age of 41, he played in all 82 of
his team’s regular season games, scoring 26 goals and averaging 0.82 points
(Selanne ranks second in goals scored by active players with 665. Jagr has
Forget hockey for a second: In modern professional sports history, how
many athletes aged 40 or over have been capable of having a major, positive
on field/court/ice impact? Not many, right? Let’s take a look. Here’s how
Jagr stacks against other players in other sports throughout time.
(Note: In major league baseball’s history there have been literally hundreds
of positional players and pitchers who’ve competed well past the age of 40.
But given the game’s dramatically less strenuous nature, that sport will be
excluded from this particular discussion.)
Football: Only 37 men—not including those primarily utilized in
special teams—have been signed to an NFL team past the age of 40.
Understandably so, as it’s by far the most physically arduous team sport
in existence. In NFL history, several (non-kicker/punter) all-time greats
have hung on long enough to impact their team’s week-to-week chances of
winning. Notable names from recent history, like Junior Seau, Brett Favre
and Jerry Rice come to mind.
Here are some of the most notable:
Junior Seau: Two years after playing in all 16 games for the undefeated
New England Patriots, Seau hit 40 and his use as anything but a situational
run-stuffer was completely over. In 2009 he played in seven games for the
Patriots, recovering one fumble and recording nine solo tackles.
Brett Favre: As a 40-year-old quarterback in Minnesota, Favre led
the Vikings to a 12-4 regular season record and overtime of the NFC
Championship game. Uncharacteristically, he led all quarterbacks with an
interception percentage of 1.3% (the previous season he led the league with
22 interceptions) to go along with 33 touchdowns.
Jerry Rice: The greatest football player who ever lived, Jerry Rice didn’t
just suit up at the age of 40, he dominated. In 2002 with the Raiders, he
caught 92 passes for 1211 yards and seven touchdowns, making the 13th Pro
Bowl of his Hall of Fame career. He retired two seasons later.
Basketball. Even rarer than the graying football star is the old man in shorts
and sneakers pounding his knees on a hardwood floor every other night.
Only 17 players in NBA history have entered a game at 40 years old or
older, and right now there are only two (Grant Hill and Kurt Thomas)—but
both are rotational players on championship contending teams.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: As the starting center on the eventual NBA
Champion Los Angeles Lakers, Abdul-Jabbar’s performance as a 40-year-
old was undeniably effective. He averaged 14.6 points on 53.2% shooting in
80 regular season games.
Robert Parish: He’d go onto play until he was 43, but Robert Parish’s last
season as a Celtic came when he was 40. He spent 14 seasons of his Hall
of Fame career as Boston’s starting center, but that last one was filled with
losing and modest play.
Karl Malone: Malone’s final year in the league was his first not wearing a
Utah Jazz jersey. Instead, he opted to chase a championship with the Lakers,
teaming up with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant as a 40-year-old power
forward. It was the worst season of his career, and the Lakers lost in the
John Stockton: In his final season with the Utah Jazz (the only team he
ever played for) 40-year-old John Stockton started all 82 regular season
games and averaged 7.7 assists and 10.8 points (numbers that exceeded his
production as a 23-year-old).
Michael Pina is a writer for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network and ScoreBig.com.
Follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina.