Jaromir Jagr may very well be the greatest hockey non-goalie ever from the Czech Republic. Dominik Hasek is his sole competition for the player mantle and that depends on whether you think he was the best goalie ever. In any case, Jagr's longevity alone is a big argument in favor of such a claim. Sports are generally a young person's game. With age, steps are lost, the body breaks down, and the game itself can change. And that doesn't even consider that injuries can happen in hockey at any point. So being able to play a long time puts one in rare company. What's even rarer is that Jagr remains relevant in today's league. He's not just showing up for a fourth line role with special team minutes. No. He played a lot while driving the play against relatively strong competition while leading the team in production. I doubted what he could do after his signing last season, and less than one year later, I was rather happy that he was re-signed and got a raise.
So when Jagr said a few days ago to Tom Gulitti at Fire & Ice that he wants to play in until he's 50 or more, I actually thought about it for more than a second instead of dismissing it. Sure, Jagr's a great quote but I don't think he was entirely kidding. I can't say I fault him either. Hockey is clearly his passion. Who am I to doubt Jagr wanting to keep playing?
Well, I'm going to be That Guy and say that history says we should. Jagr wouldn't be the first person to play in the NHL past 50. The problem is that the only one who ever did it was Gordie Howe, arguably the most durable man to have ever played the game. He was the man who played into his 40s in the NHL, jumped to the WHA in his 40s, and then finished his career when his squad transferred to the NHL at the age of 52. Amazingly, Howe was relevant on his team to a degree. Per Hockey-Reference, Howe was 51 by their age designation of February 1 and he finished seventh in scoring on the 1979-80 Hartford Whalers. His 15 goals and 26 assists weren't massive, but they were ahead of the league average and median in that season. The 16% shooting percentage helped, though it wasn't extraordinary as the average shooting percentage was just below 12% back then. I defer to those who followed the game back then or a proper historian, but it appears to me that Gordie wasn't just there for a roster spot. He wasn't the force he once was, but he contributed to the team. Still, just being able to keep going that long is a massive feat. Being that he was the only one to ever have done it makes it unlikely for anyone, nevermind Jagr, to do so.
The closest player to the 50 mark is someone you may be more familiar with: Chris Chelios. His own career page at Hockey-Reference is similarly mind-boggling. Since he played in this modern era where time on ice is recorded, you can be just as stunned as I that he was averaging at least 18 minutes per game until the 2007-08 when he turned 46. That 07-08 campaign was arguably his last as a serious contributor since he ATOI dropped like a stone in his last two seasons. Nevertheless, that's an amazing tail end for a man who took plenty of punishment and dished plenty of it out from the blueline. Other than Howe and Chelios, no one has played at least one NHL game beyond his H-R age 46 season. Getting to play in a NHL game at age 44 is rare enough; Chelios and Howe are just at distant peaks in comparison.
What about goalies? The same general rule applies: post-40 players are not at all common in NHL history. According to Hockey-Reference, Moe Roberts got one appearance in his 46-year old season that lasted 20 minutes. Johnny Bower got one in his 45-year old season; but that's that. For what it's worth, Bower, Jacques Plante, and Gump Worsley all played a good amount of games in their respective 44-year old seasons. The main point still applies: very few players play in the NHL beyond 40 and it's rare if they play well into their 40s.
In short, don't bet on Jagr playing in the NHL that late into his life. For what it's worth, what he's already done is incredible on it's own. According to Hockey-Reference, Jagr's 2013-14 season was the second-most productive among skaters who were at least 41 by February 1 of that season. He just tipped Teemu Selanne's 2011-12 season by a point and he's only second to Howe's 71 points in 76 games in the 1969-70 season. I'm not sure how scoring was back then, but I would suspect it was more common than it is today. If Jagr produces at about the same level or a little less than last season - and this season's Devils may need him to do so - then he would be the unquestioned leading scorer among skaters at age 42 or older by February 1. If being one of the all-time leading scorers and top Czech players wasn't enough, there's an argument to be made as to whether he's one of the best players over the age of 40. Not the best because, well, there's Gordie Howe. He could really cement it by continuing to be a contributor for another season or two. It's not like the non-Howe over-40 players were notably strong on the scoresheet.
Ah, but this is all just all NHL history. Jagr never said he would want to play in the NHL until he's 50. Just to play hockey. That may be the only way to really reach that. Unfortunately, there isn't a Hockey-Reference for other leagues in the world. So I am not sure how many - or how few - players have performed in European leagues at that age. I know Hasek turned 46 in his last season of pro hockey in the KHL; I do not know about others. They're lower level compared to the NHL, but it's still professional hockey. All of the issues that come with that and aging will happen no matter where he plays. This is a sport where one serious injury at any age can happen whenever and change everything, after all. Jagr's been doing really well so far, but Father Time usually wins in the end. That said, I'm not going to doubt him fighting that battle as long as he can. I just wouldn't hold my breath on him playing at 50.