PITTSBURGH -- Pittsburgh Penguins fans couldn't wait to fall in love with Jaromir Jagr all over again.
Just as they enjoyed watching a maturing Mario Lemieux mentor an immensely skilled but very raw Jagr in the early 1990s, they spent this past June imagining an older Jagr complementing their current-day superstars, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
They even dared to speculate that Jagr would enter his 40s the same way he ended his teens -- by helping lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup.
Then Jagr broke their hearts. Again.
Just as Jagr left behind angered fans when he was traded to Washington in 2001, ending his enormously successful 10-year run in Pittsburgh, Jagr alienated the Penguins' fans again this past summer by signing with the cross-state rival Philadelphia Flyers.
The same player who once said he would end his three-season stay in the Kontinental Hockey League and sign again with the Penguins out of respect to Lemieux rejected Pittsburgh for a second time. The same player whose agent, Petr Svoboda, was quoted as saying Jagr's "heart is in Pittsburgh" seemingly followed money rather than loyalty.
Needless to say, Jagr's return to Pittsburgh in Flyers orange and black on Thursday at Consol Energy Center has the locals in quite the fervor.
It's not as if Jagr is playing in Pittsburgh for the first time since leaving the Penguins; that occurred a decade ago. But this is different; these are the Flyers, and no opponent is hated more.
The Penguins never leave a "Welcome" mat out for the Flyers, and they're certainly not putting one down for the 39-year-old Jagr, either.
"The Flyers are coming in, there's going to be some animosity -- it's a big game for us; right now we're tied in points and it's a chance for us to jump ahead of them," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday. "It'll be a lot of … talk in the building."
A lot of boos, too, and far more than for former Penguins forward Maxime Talbot, who also signed with Philadelphia as a free agent this summer.
While Talbot was one of the most popular Penguins players -- he scored both goals in their 2-1 win in Detroit in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final -- his signing was greeted with far less emotion than Jagr's.
Pens brace for returns of Jagr, TalbotCorey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer
Jaromir Jagr and Maxime Talbot return to Pittsburgh as members of the Flyers for Thursday's game -- Jagr's reception guarantees to be chilly, but it's less certain how Talbot will be greeted. READ MORE ›
But while the majority of the Penguins' fan base respected Talbot's decision -- even applauded him for landing such a sweet deal -- the Jagr signing was different. This was one of the landmark players in franchise history, a two-time Stanley Cup winner and five-time NHL scoring champion, a player long beloved for his boyish enthusiasm and wildly productive seasons.
Think Jagr isn't going to hear it from the Pittsburgh faithful?
"The buildings and fans can have an effect on the game, they can make it difficult for the opposing team," Bylsma said. "They can build momentum for their own team, as well. I think we're anticipating a little of that -- the Flyers always get it -- for Max and Jaromir."
Malkin, who once opposed Jagr in the Russian pro league, is hoping the sellout crowd's enthusiasm can be a distraction to Jagr, who is off to a superb start in Philadelphia with 11 goals and 19 assists in 31 games playing on the team's top line with Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell.
"I hope the fans help us and Jagr will be nervous a little bit and not score," Malkin said.
Still, Malkin can't help but wonder how productive Jagr would have been in Pittsburgh, where his talents might have eased the Penguins through Crosby's latest concussion-related layoff. Crosby has missed all but eight games this season, yet the Penguins (21-11-4) are right there in the standings with the Flyers (21-10-4).
"Yeah, I like him, he's a good player. I hoped he would sign (with the Penguins)," Malkin said.
So did Bylsma, who during the summer said he mentally drew up line combinations that included Jagr.
"I know talking to Zbynek (Michalek) and the guys who went to the World Championship last year, he was motivated and was a very good player there," Bylsma said. "That's part of the reason we were interested."
There's also a possibility, Bylsma said, that any negative reaction could motivate Jagr, much like the Philadelphia fans' vitriol appears to drive Crosby, who has 13 goals and 17 assists in 18 career games in the City of Brotherly Love.
"It's not the first time Jaromir Jagr has come into a building and hasn't been liked," Bylsma said. "Sure he's going to expect it, hear it. But there are players who hear the crowd and feed off it."
Jagr last played in Pittsburgh on May 4, 2008, during the Penguins' series-clinching 3-2 overtime victory against the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Jagr had three goals in that series, all in New York. His last goal in Pittsburgh came Jan. 14, 2008, or nearly four years ago, during a 4-1 Rangers loss.
In his career, Jagr has 17 goals and 19 assists in 37 games against the Penguins, with whom he won the Stanley Cup in 1991 and 1992, his first two NHL seasons.
Now, just as he was 20 years ago or 10 years ago -- when he overcame a slow start during Lemieux's 2000-01 comeback season to win the scoring title -- Jagr is the talk of Pittsburgh. Only for a much different reason this time.
Jagr once complained in Pittsburgh that he was "dying alive" -- a reaction to a prolonged scoring slump in which he had a lone goal in 12 games during that 2000-01 season -- but Penguins fans will see a reborn Jagr on Thursday. And they might not like what they see.
"It's what we saw him doing with our team, with a Malkin and a Crosby," Bylsma said.