On Jaromir Jagr’s polarizing return to Pittsburgh with Flyers

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Since he was traded on July 11, 2001, Pittsburgh Penguins fans have had a love/hate relationship with Jaromir Jagr.

Half of them despise him for the infamous "dying alive" quote and the way he left town (though Jagr claimed in 2008 he was trying to help the then-financially-strapped organization). The other half remember his dazzling goal in Game 1 of the 1992 Stanley Cup Final against the Chicago Blackhawks, the four 100-point seasons, the Hart Trophy in 1999, and being the only NHL player other than Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux to win the Art Ross Trophy between 1981 and 1997.

That's what makes Jagr's return tonight to Pittsburgh all the more polarizing.

A portion of the fans that disowned him after he was traded to the Washington Capitals saw that hate subside a little over the years, and were even warming to the idea of a Jagr return this season.

But when he signed with the Philadelphia Flyers (the Flyers of all teams!), it was like 2001 all over again. The hate had returned.

The decibel level will be off the charts when Jagr first steps onto the CONSOL Energy Center ice tonight, and the majority of the 18,387 fans in attendance will find their vocal chords very sore on Friday morning after a night of booing a player whose legacy in the city was jeopardized forever by his decision last summer.

The idea of Jagr bookmarking a storied hockey career with one last run in Pittsburgh, playing alongside Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin was highly appealing. Penguins fans were mapping out Jagr's future already if he chose to return.

One final season in Pittsburgh. He hangs up his skates, and then in two or three years No. 68 rightfully hangs from the rafters next to Michel Briere's No. 21 and No. 66 of Lemieux.

Jagr's legacy is in Pittsburgh, and forever. If you play the "Jersey Game" with any hockey fan and they'll identify Jagr as a Penguin. That's where he made his name. That's where he became more than a hockey player. It's where he became a brand.

But the teasing of a return to the Penguins since 2009 makes Jagr's acceptance back into good graces of the fanbase something that, like his departure in 2001, will take time get over. More time even.

Almost three years ago, Jagr told Ken Campbell of The Hockey News that if Lemieux ever called wanting him to return to the Penguins, he'd jump at the chance and play for the league minimum. Jagr said he owed his hockey life to the man that helped make him.

Then there was last spring during the World Championships when Jagr talked up an NHL comeback and mentioned the Penguins as a team he might be interested in playing for.

Weeks later, as the Jagr sweepstakes heated up and both he and his agent, Petr Svoboda, tugged at the heartstrings of Penguins fans.

First, as negotiations were on-going, Svoboda told the media that Jagr's "heart is in Pittsburgh". Then it was the news of Jagr telling Penguins GM Ray Shero he wanted to do right by Mario after the Hockey Hall of Famer called him to discuss a return. Jagr told the media on Wednesday that he didn't personally speak with anyone from the Penguins over the summer.

From there, #JagrWatch was on the brink of exploding until it all came to a head on July 1 when it was announced he'd signed a 1-year, $3.3 million deal to wear orange and black and not black and vegas gold.

Much like time healed some wounds between 2001 and before July 1, 2011, eventually, Jagr will find a place back in the hearts of most Penguins fans. He'll never have full 100-percent support of the fanbase, but his name still means a lot to the organization. As Reggie Jackson once said about fans, they don't boo nobodies.

As we find out in sports, fairytales don't always end the way we want them to. Jagr has found his place in the Flyers lineup, gelling with Claude Giroux as they once again battle for the Atlantic Division crown.

The Penguins, even without Crosby, are, as usual, right there with the Flyers as they now both chase the New York Rangers.

We'll never know how a final chapter would have played out if Jagr had come back to the Penguins, but the book is yet to be fully closed.

Photo credits: AP

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