Jagr, Talbot find out how hard it is to go home
PITTSBURGH -- Home is a relative thing at the best of times in pro sports.
Players arrive via trade or free agency or through the draft, are welcomed by fans and settle in. If they're lucky, a bond develops between the player and the fans, something that fuels a passion for the game on both sides of the equation. But everyone knows it's a relationship that could end at any time. That doesn't diminish the relationship, necessarily, but it is the harsh reality.
And so we consider a homecoming in two parts as the Philadelphia Flyers journey across the state of Pennsylvania for the first time this season, bringing with them two players whose contributions to the Penguins franchise are etched in time, two players who in some ways have been immortalized in black and gold.
Does such a connection make it harder to come home again? Easier?
In the Flyer dressing room, the guys sometimes refer to Jagr and Talbot as "the old Penguins," Talbot told ESPN.com in an interview earlier this week.
Sometimes the guys joke that the pair needs to cut the cord, he said.
"But it's all good," Talbot insisted.
The joking in the Flyers' locker room underscores that they, too, understand that this is no ordinary trip home for these two players even if the reasons for that import are markedly different.
We recall Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero telling us about the first time he saw Talbot, back when Shero was an assistant GM with the Nashville Predators and the rookie Talbot fought Darcy Hordichuk, one of the toughest players in the league, after Hordichuk crushed former Penguin Ziggy Palffy.
Talbot, of course, got destroyed, and Shero recalled thinking, "Who is that crazy kid?"
But when he got to Pittsburgh, he found out that Talbot was one of five or six like-minded young prospects who would become the core of a team that would ascend in dramatic fashion, first to the Stanley Cup finals in 2008, and then to Stanley Cup champions a year later.
Talbot, Rob Scuderi, Brooks Orpik, Ryan Malone, Marc-Andre Fleury, Jordan Staal, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby were all homegrown talent. Many of them, including Talbot, had grown up within the organization, playing for the Pens' AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.
Fans want winners, of course. That goes without saying. But they also want a team they can identify with, fall in love with. In a blue-collar town like Pittsburgh, that means they want a team that exudes a blue-collar work ethic.
Talbot was an integral part of the evolution of the identity of this Penguin team as not just flash and dash, but a team of substance and character.
We do not hold to the belief that hockey fights have the ability to change anything in a game other than to endanger the combatants. But we were on hand when one such fight might have changed the course of a series, if not history.
It was in Game 6 of the 2009 quarterfinals between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. The Flyers led 3-0 at home and were one period away from forcing a seventh game back in Pittsburgh. A horrific giveaway by Talbot led to one of the Flyers' goals, and early in the third period Talbot challenged Flyers heavyweight Dan Carcillo to fight.
It was another classic mismatch. Yet, whether you can draw a line from A to B, the Penguins stormed back to win the game 5-3. A few weeks later, Talbot scored both goals in the Penguins' emotional victory in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals at Joe Louis Arena.
The date and the Cup are tattooed on Talbot's body, just as the memory is tattooed on every Penguin fans' memory.
That Talbot would leave the Penguins' fold isn't all that surprising.
The team has lots of high-priced help they have to keep in line financially and players on Cup winners, players like Talbot, always see their stock rise.
Ryan Malone signed a whopper deal in Tampa after the Pens' run to the 2008 final.
Scuderi signed a big contract with the L.A. Kings after the Cup win.
There were no hard feelings when Talbot left, he said.
Many Pens fans would ask rhetorically: yeah, but Philly? Anywhere but Philly. But Talbot insisted it made perfect sense to him.
He'd played them many times, knew what the Flyers were about, that they were committed to winning and they, conversely, knew what he was about, the kind of game he played.
So switching sides in what is one of hockey's hottest rivalries made perfect sense for the 27-year-old.
"Rivalry for me is a kind of mark of respect," he said. "To me Philly is that kind of team."
Of course, the first thing Talbot did when he signed that five-year, $8.75 million deal was look at the schedule to see when he would return home, er, to his former home again.
"The first emotion that comes to mind is excitement," Talbot said. "It was the first game I marked on the calendar in the summer.
"I'll never forget any moment I spent there."
Given Talbot's place and the way he played, it would be a shock if he is greeted any way but warmly.
Well, he represents a different homecoming altogether.
It's been more than a decade since Jagr played his last game as a Penguin at the end of the 2000-01 season.
He went on to Washington and then New York, where he captained the Rangers and in fact played against the Penguins in the playoffs in the second round of his final NHL season before leaving for the Kontinental Hockey League, where he spent the past three years.
But when Jagr announced that he wanted to give the NHL one more shot, it just seemed natural that he would return to Pittsburgh and close the circle of his career.
This was more than just fans talking at the bar or media trying to flush out a summer notebook.
This was real. The Penguins saw the value in having Jagr return, were prepared to take a risk on a 39-year-old winger three years removed from the best league in the world.
Detroit was interested. Montreal, too.
But with owner Mario Lemieux, Jagr's old mentor and teammate, fully endorsing the move to sign Jagr, it just seemed to be, well, kismet.
There was an offer on the table from the Penguins and, in fact, one of the local papers had an entire "Jagr returns" spread ready to run -- that's how close the Pens believed they were to signing their old star.
But Jagr is nothing if not mercurial, and at the last moment he pulled back and signed with the Flyers, who offered him a one-year deal worth $3.3 million.
If fans understood Talbot getting a more lucrative offer, they were less understanding of Jagr's decision to bring his career to a close in Pennsylvania, but with the other state team.
On the current HBO documentary "24/7: Road To The Winter Classic," Jagr acknowledged the change in plans and admitted that had he signed with Pittsburgh, maybe his jersey would someday hang from the rafters at the Consol Energy Center.
Not a chance that will happen now.
If he appears momentarily wistful at the thought, Jagr has no regrets about his decision and neither do the Flyers.
Playing mostly with NHL scoring leader Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, Jagr has been dynamic and the line has been among the most productive in the NHL. Jagr has 30 points in 31 games, including 11 goals, and the three have combined for 45 goals and 62 assists as the Flyers remain among the top teams in both the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference.
"What he's been able to do for their power play, what he's been able to do for Giroux has been pretty good," Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday. "He's been very good on that line. He's been very good for their power play and those were a lot of things we saw him with our team and with a Malkin and a Crosby.
"Am I surprised? Not really. I know talking to Zbynek [Michalek] this summer and the guys that were at the World Championships, he was a motivated, real good player there as well. That was part of the reason we were interested."
Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette has enjoyed not just the production but Jagr's presence in the room.
"Getting an opportunity to work with him I think you really appreciate how much he puts into the game," Laviolette said after a workout during which Jagr managed to shatter a pane of arena glass.
"His work ethic and his demeanor that he takes to the rink every day, his professionalism. Guy stays late, he's out there, he works extra, comes back, works again, sets a tremendous example for our young players. He's been excellent."
As for Jagr, a happy-go-lucky sort, he downplayed his return to Pittsburgh with a number of curt answers Wednesday, perhaps belying some underlying nerves.
Asked if previous returns to Pittsburgh had an impact on his play, Jagr joked that he was petrified.
"I couldn't play," he deadpanned. "Please don't boo me."
Still, don't expect him to try and prove something to fans for whom the five-time NHL scoring champ and two-time Cup champion with the Penguins has already proven it all.
"That would be the worst thing that could happen if you want to show somebody you still have it," Jagr said. "Then I would show my ego. I don't want to prove anybody anything. I don't think I would play my game if I wanted to show somebody.
"Plus, I don't have it anymore," Jagr added with a grin.Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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