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Florida Panthers forward Jaromir Jagr, left, was voted an all-star game captain by NHL fans, despite his pleas on social media that they vote for someone else. (Joel Auerbach/AP Photo)
Florida Panthers forward Jaromir Jagr, left, was voted an all-star game captain by NHL fans, despite his pleas on social media that they vote for someone else. (Joel Auerbach/AP Photo)

Led by 43-year-old Jaromir Jagr, Florida Panthers pounce to top of Atlantic Add to ...

Practice is over … officially – but that appears to mean nothing to Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr and his linemates with the Florida Panthers – centre Aleksander Barkov, Jr. and left winger Jonathan Huberdeau – line up four pucks each near centre ice. Jagr goes first, stopping and starting hard the width of the ice before firing each puck into the boards. The other two follow suit, taking turns and then repeating, repeating, repeating the impromptu drill until all three are sagging, sweating, crouched over as they gasp for air.

Jagr will turn 44 on Feb. 15. Huberdeau is 22, Barkov, 20. It may be the NHL’s most unusual line: one player older than the other two combined, a Czech, a Russian-Finn and a French-Canadian. It is also one of the NHL’s best.

Certainly it has been shining recently, as the surprising Panthers have ridden a 10-game winning streak to the top of the Atlantic division. Overall, Florida trails only the Washington Capitals and Dallas Stars in the standings and sits comfortably at the same level as the Los Angeles Kings, the 2014 Stanley Cup champions, and the Chicago Blackhawks, the Stanley Cup reigning champions.

For an NHL team that is valued less than all others by Forbes Magazine ($186-million U.S.), that has been rumoured for a possible move to Quebec City, that broadcasts row after row of empty seats on each home telecast, the Florida Panthers are this hockey season’s Cinderella story.

On the day following a thorough whipping of the Buffalo Sabres (5-1), they arrived in Ottawa to news that coach Gerard Gallant, goaltender Roberto Luongo and defenceman Aaron Ekblad will be going to the Jan. 31 all-star game in Nashville. Jagr had already been voted one of the all-star captains by fans, despite his plea that they vote for someone else so he could have some time off.

“They want me dead,” he had joked when informed.

He is far from dead. The happy kid with the mullet who helped the Pittsburgh Penguins to two Stanley Cups a generation ago now shaves grey stubble and has a fake mullet hanging in his locker. With five more goals he will catch Brett Hull as the league’s third highest career goal scorer (741) and he has joked about playing until age 50.

Asked what he expects at the all-star game, he says, “I don’t know. I don’t really remember because the last time I was at an all-star game was 15 years ago or so.”

Jagr’s NHL career appeared to come to an end in 2008, when he left to play three seasons with Avangard Omsk of the KHL. He returned in 2011 to bounce around the league – Philadelphia Flyers, Dallas Stars, Boston Bruins, New Jersey Devils – only to be surprised by a trade last year to the Panthers.

“You have to rely on your scouts,” says Florida general manager Dale Tallon. Tallon, who was the original architect of the powerhouse that became today’s Chicago Blackhawks, had been tasked with rebuilding this franchise that has seen only one postseason in the past 15 years.

The Panthers had good young prospects and Tallon wanted to bring in veteran experience. From Vancouver the Panthers got goaltender Roberto Luongo, who at 36 is having a spectacular season. And scout Peter Mahovlich was “adamant” that the Panthers go after Jagr.

“We paid a good price for him,” Tallon says. “Two [draft] picks – a third and a second – but it’s been well worth it.

“This guy is a freak. Gordie Howe, Chris Chelios and Jags are three guys that don’t come along very often. Physically you have to have it in your genes, and you have to have incredible desire and passion and a love for the game that is second to none. Your whole life has got to be just that.”

Tallon says Jagr’s influence on the young players has been enormous. “I see Barkov wanting to be him,” Tallon says. “Barkov is really becoming a man in front of our eyes. And so is Huberdeau.

“Watching Jags, his preparation prior to games and his preparation on off days, how he practises and works and the young guys are going, ‘Well, I better do the same thing.’”

Jagr thinks no one should be surprised at the play of Barkov and Huberdeau at such young ages.

“Don’t forget that they were drafted very high,” he says. Barkov went second overall in 2013, Huberdeau third in 2011. “There is a lot of speed and skill. If you have that kind of skill, all you need is a just a little more experience.”

Jagr is often seen talking on the bench with his young teammates, explaining plays and pointing out errors. In Tuesday’s game against Buffalo, he was caught in animated conversation with Ekblad, the team’s 19-year-old all-star defenceman.

“It’s normal stuff,” Jagr says. “You have five guys on the ice and if you’re going to make some plays you got to talk. … You just have to make sure you’re on the same page.

“Hockey’s too quick. You don’t have time to get a puck, look around and then make a play. It’s too quick. You’ve got to know what you’re doing before you get the puck.”

In Tallon’s case, the secret is to know what you’re doing before you go after the players in the draft or by trade. And recently that, too, has been working.

“We had a plan and it’s starting to work,” the GM says. “We’re starting to see the fruits of our labour now.

“We’ve got some great young kids surrounded by some excellent veteran guys that are championship guys. Now the young guys are starting to believe in themselves and are getting more mature, physically and emotionally and mentally. You just never know when it’s going to hit, when it’s going to happen, but it’s happening right before our eyes and it’s really fun to see.”

As for those empty seats at BB&T Center, Tallon says he’s convinced that is also coming around. Ownership says it is committed to staying now that Broward County has voted to help out with $86-million (U.S.) in public funds. And the hot play of the Panthers is bringing in new fans.

“We’re going to stay there,” Tallon says. “The county has given us a vote of confidence. The team is starting to jell and come together. And the fans are coming.

“It’s all headed in the right direction.”

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