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Bruins' Jagr remains part of Penguins' locker room

by Chris Adamski

PITTSBURGH -- Walk down the basement concourse of Consol Energy Center and approach the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room and you'll encounter a large mural that features five of the biggest stars of the franchise's history of almost a half century.

Enter the Penguins dressing room and one of the neatest features -- in addition to the replica stainless steel dome overheard that pays tribute to the old Civic Arena -- is an unofficial "ring of fame" of sorts. About two dozen Penguins icons -- former players, coaches and executives -- circle the room with roughly one above each current player's locker stall.

Going clockwise from the players' entrance, the late Bob Johnson, who coached the Penguins to their first Stanley Cup in 1991, is pictured above the locker of Marc-Andre Fleury.

Jaromir Jagr
Jaromir Jagr
Right Wing - BOS
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 4
SOG: 36 | +/-: -2
Move past the likes of Mario Lemieux, Larry Murphy, Paul Coffey, Kevin Stevens and several others until you get about two-thirds of the way through the U-shaped room. There, above where Mark Eaton readies his equipment, is where the player who ranks second in Penguins history in every relevant career offensive category is honored.

That particular player, a five-time NHL scoring champion, was a major part of the franchise's first two Stanley Cup titles. He also just happens to be someone who could play a significant role in preventing them from having a chance at a fourth.

Jaromir Jagr is the NHL's eighth all-time leading scorer and was one of the most popular athletes ever to play in Pittsburgh -- while he played there, anyway.

Now 41 and with the Boston Bruins, Jagr returns to the Steel City, where he became cultural phenomenon as an 18-year-old, long-haired, prodigious wunderkind nearly a quarter-century ago, for the Eastern Conference Finals between the Penguins and Bruins, which will begin this week.

"He's up here for the great time he had here with Pittsburgh and winning two Cups and being one of the greatest players of all time," Eaton said while standing underneath three renderings of Jagr. "That's why he's in here, but that doesn't play into our heads at all now."

Coach Dan Bylsma smiled and shook his head when asked if it would be awkward if he, say, was giving instructions during an intermission of Game 1 of the conference finals on how to stop No. 68 while that player's likeness peered down upon him in his Penguins glory.

"I have never given it thought that one of the star players in Pittsburgh history is up on our Ring of Honor and still playing," Bylsma said.

It is likely a unique situation in all of professional sports. Though the Penguins haven't had any ceremonies to officially recognize those who are honored inside their locker room, it's generally understood that players must be retired before a franchise immortalizes them in such a way.

When Consol Energy Center was completed in 2010, Jagr was a 38-year-old whom hadn't played in the NHL in more than two years but was lighting up the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. It had been nine years, at that point, since he wore a Penguins sweater.

But when his contract with Avangard Omsk expired a year later, he expressed an interest to return to North America. It was widely speculated he could end up back with the Penguins. Instead, he signed with their biggest rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers.

Worse for Pittsburgh fans, Jagr had seven points in six games when the Flyers beat the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs last year.

"He's still got that good ability to get a shot off in tight spaces and in not a lot of space," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "So yeah, I definitely think he's still a threat out there. He's gotten a ton of chances throughout the playoffs and generated a lot."

Although Jagr doesn't have a goal and has been limited to four assists in 12 Stanley Cup Playoff games this season, he is averaging three shots on goal per game. His 17:17 of ice time is among the Bruins' top six for forwards, and in a testament to how dangerous he remains offensively, Jagr's average ice time of 2:45 on the power play is tied for the most on the Bruins.

"Down low, he's still a force down low with the puck offensively. He's a tough guy to take the puck off of," Bylsma said.

"I don't look at birth certificates, he might be [41], but he still has that power play coming off the flanker, coming off the half-wall ability there. And his puck protection down low in the offensive zone is a big factor for that line. He's still got game -- maybe not the same hair as he did when he was in Pittsburgh -- but he's still got game."

And he seemingly always ends up back in Pittsburgh. This is the third consecutive NHL season for Jagr in which he has faced the Penguins in the playoffs. In addition to last season, he lost to the Penguins in the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals as a member of the New York Rangers.

"He's somebody that we've seen a lot of with his years in Philly and New York," Eaton said. "So we obviously know what he's capable of and what he does."

Veteran forward Brenden Morrow was a teammate of Jagr's with the Dallas Stars for most of this season until each was traded in the approach to the NHL Trade Deadline.

While Pittsburgh fans tend to boo Jagr now, a generation ago he arguably was the most popular athlete in the city -- more than Lemieux or Stevens, more than the Pirates' Barry Bonds or Bobby Bonilla, more than the Steelers' Rod Woodson or Greg Lloyd when Jagr was a rookie Stanley Cup champion in 1991.

The way Morrow sees it, Jagr remains the highly talented, highly charismatic player at 41 that he was back in his youth.

"He's still just as excited as any 18-year-old in the locker room," Morrow said. "He comes to the rink ready to work. His skills are still there, his big body's tough to move when he's planted and has possession of the puck.

"He played real well for us in Dallas, scored some big goals. He's a threat every time he's on the ice."

Just like he was for more than a decade for the Penguins.

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