-- The city of Pittsburgh has changed a lot since the days when billows of smoke from blast furnaces filled the sky like dark clouds, but the passion of its sports fans remains.
Sporting heroes are exulted, and tales of where fathers were when Maz beat the Yankees or Franco's reception was immaculate are passed to sons as part of family folklore. That same passion applies to those who have become villains.
Just before Christmas a DJ for a local rock radio station read derogatory holiday-themed poems about Barry Bonds. He hasn't worn a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform in 19 years.
Bonds is the least-liked former player in this city, because baseball in Pittsburgh hasn't been the same since he left. That would probably make Jaromir Jagr
, who will play in Pittsburgh for the first time Thursday as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers
, Public Enemy No. 2.
The game Thursday will also mark the return of Maxime Talbot
, who signed with the Flyers this offseason after six seasons with the Penguins to begin his career. The reaction the two ex-Penguins receive will likely be quite different. Both were once considered hockey heroes in this town, and both now play for the team's biggest rival.
"Maybe not nervousness but more excitement," Talbot said Wednesday after the Flyers practiced at a local rink in Castle Shannon, Pa. "It's a game that at the start of the year you mark on the calendar. Yes, Dec. 8 was exciting playing for the first time against the Penguins, but obviously being back here in Pittsburgh is even more so exciting. In the end, it is a hockey match and it is a big two points and it is going to be a big game for us."
Jagr returns as a villain -- just as he has in past returns with the Washington Capitals
and New York Rangers
. Seeing him in a white sweater with black and orange trim Thursday might just enrage Penguins fans more than previous encounters.
"Not for me, really," Jagr said when asked if it would be any different for him than previous trips back. When asked about an expected reaction, a salty Jagr replied, "What kind of question is this? Everybody knows."
The reaction for Talbot will likely not be as clear. He is now somewhere between a hero and a heel in this city. The memory of his two goals against the Detroit Red Wings
in Game 7 of the 2009 Stanley Cup Final remains fresh, and for a generation of Pittsburgh fans, they may tell their kids where they were when Talbot was a surprise Game 7 star at Joe Louis Arena.
Talbot was also a fan favorite for more than just his Cup heroics. Pittsburgh stopped being a "blue-collar town" long ago, but that image still resonates with its sports fans.
They like to think of their sports heroes in the way their parents adored tough guys like Jack Lambert and "Mean" Joe Greene. Talbot was someone who played hard and had a boisterous personality, so fans embraced him.
Now, he plays on the wrong side of the state. While some fans might see this as an unforgivable sin, there were a few Penguins fans at Flyers practice wearing their old No. 25 jerseys with Talbot on the back.
"I don't know. I hope [it is positive]," Talbot said of the reaction Thursday night. "I've always said how much I respected and loved my time in Pittsburgh and how special it was, so hopefully I'll get a good reception, but you don't know. Hockey fans are passionate and it is something that comes with being a hockey player. For me, it is exciting to be back here and it is a big game."
Jagr's Hall of Fame-worthy career began in Pittsburgh, and he too was once a fan favorite. The Penguins won the Stanley Cup in each of his first two seasons, and he was just a fun-loving kid from the Czech Republic with a large swath of hair flowing behind him.
While Jagr's name in on Lord Stanley's Cup twice, those were Mario Lemieux
's teams. Eventually, Jagr became one of the best players in the world and a captain, and he was unable to propel his team to meet the high expectations those Lemieux-led clubs had set.
He clashed with the media. He clashed with coaches. That fun-loving guy wasn't there anymore.
Jagr eventually left in a trade with the Washington Capitals
, and there has never been a chance for him and this city to make up. At least, there wasn't before this summer.
When the 39-year-old Jagr decided to return to the NHL after a three-year hiatus, Pittsburgh became the reported favorite to land his services. Some Penguins fans prepared to embrace him, while others remained skeptical after the sour end to his first tenure.
Not only did Jagr not return to Pittsburgh, he ended up in Philadelphia.
"Getting an opportunity to work with him, I think you really get to appreciate the work that he puts in," Flyers coach Peter Laviolette
said. "His work ethic, his demeanor he takes to the rink every day, his professionalism -- the guy stays late, he's out there and he works extra. He sets a tremendous example for our young players. He's been excellent."
The Jagr who played in the NHL for 17 years before leaving for Russia had a complicated relationship with the media. Some days he was a fantastic interview subject -- thoughtful and insightful. Other days he wasn't, and his mood swings became part of his persona.
Members of the Philadelphia press corps have raved about the new Jagr. He's come back from Russia a different guy, and Laviolette's words would support such an argument.
Jagr has been a huge part of Philadelphia's on-ice success this season in the wake of trading away Mike Richards
and Jeff Carter
. He has 11 goals and 30 points, and has settled in on the wing of the team's top line with Claude Giroux
and Scott Hartnell
"The Salute" celebration is back as well.
"I hadn't seen him in three years, but I know when he left he was one of the best players in the League," Laviolette said. "Now, in my opinion, he still remains one of the best players in the League."
When Jagr met with members of the media from both cities after practice Wednesday, he was not the same guy Philadelphia writers praised. Jagr bristled at questions, and having the hood of his sweatshirt pulled over his head embodied the mood he appeared to be in during the interview.
"That would be the worst thing that could happen if you want to show somebody you still have it," Jagr said. "That would should my ego. I don't want to prove anybody anything. I don't think I would play my game tomorrow night if I [tried] to show somebody.
"Plus I don't have it anymore."
It was a stark contrast to Talbot, who bantered with a Pittsburgh beat writer while a fan pressed a "Welcome back, Max," sign against the glass behind his left shoulder. The only fans wearing Jagr jerseys at the rink were a pair of kids in recently-purchased Philadelphia sweaters.
There should be plenty of emotion Thursday night at Consol Energy Center. The rivalry between the two teams is intense enough, but the return of a villain and a sort-of-villain/still-kind-of-hero will likely make it a memorable night.
"It is going to be there, and we'll have to deal with it," Laviolette said. "I'm not being smart -- it is just one of those things that there is nothing you can do about it. You can talk to the player, and I talked to Jags about it a little bit, but there's nothing you can do about it. In saying that, we've lost a couple of games in a row here and I'm trying to figure out what we need to do. We need to make sure we are ready to play and to win a game."
Added Talbot: "I think I can compare it a little to Dec. 8 and the first time I played the Penguins. Leading up to the warm-up it was exciting to see your old teammates across the ice, but when the pucks drops during the first shift, you just think about your job and you think about doing well and playing the game."