LOS ANGELES – The Pittsburgh Penguins have two retired numbers in their 50-year NHL history but it probably won’t be long before Michel Briere and Mario Lemieux have company in the rafters inside PPG Paints Arena.
It’s been 16 years since Jaromir Jagr’s relationship with the Pittsburgh Penguins ended with the trade to the Washington Capitals. It wasn’t the cleanest of divorces and a lot of acrimony remained between “Mario Jr.” and the fans many years later.
It appeared to have subsided a bit in 2011 when Jagr was planning to return to the NHL after three years in Russia. But while the Penguins pursued him, he rejected their offer and ended up signing with the hated Philadelphia Flyers. Months later, he was greeted with boos upon his return to Pittsburgh where he scored a goal and busted out the old Jagr salute.
But with time, fences mend and the relationship between Jagr and the Penguins has thawed. He’s too important to that franchise to be forgotten, so it’s no surprise that after he was named as one of the 100 Greatest NHL Players on Friday night, Lemieux talked about how he could one day see No. 68 retired by the franchise.
“Oh, absolutely. He’s been a big part of our franchise,” Lemieux said. “He’s won two Cups in Pittsburgh. He’s a Hall of Famer, by far, and I’m sure he’ll be up there eventually.”
Jagr, who was also part of the list, was drafted fifth overall by the Penguins in 1990 and made an immediate impact in his first two NHL seasons helping the franchise win its first two Stanley Cups. Entering the league at 18, he was surrounded by veteran players who were big influences on his career, some of whom were also part of the top 100 list.
“It’s very special. I have to say thanks to those guys [that] I made it,” Jagr said. “They were big help for me — Mario, Ron Francis, Bryan Trottier, Paul Coffey, even Luc, I played a little with him. I never played with Sid. I would have probably more goals by now.”
Lemieux and Jagr, one of the top duos in the NHL during the 1990s, don’t see one another very often these days, so nights like Friday are a great opportunity to catch up and talk about old times.
“We don’t talk a lot but when we see each other we have a good time,” Lemieux said. “He loves life and is always smiling, so it was nice to spend a little time and [he got to] see my wife as well. He hadn’t seen her in a while. It’s always good to see him.”
While he may be turning 45 in less than a month Jagr isn’t to the point where retirement is on his mind. He recently said he’d like to play until he’s 55, which isn’t out of the question considering his dedication to fitness.
“He’s still playing, I can’t believe it,” Lemieux said. “He’s still playing well. He’s in great shape and hopefully he can play a couple more years. [He’s] certainly one of the best ever.”
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