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Kovacevic: A great day to appreciate No. 68

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By Dejan Kovacevic
Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
 

Greatness in sports shows itself at what can feel like a fleeting glimpse, and then it's gone.

Most places, anyway.

Not here.

Not in a city that's home to at least one MVP-recognized talent with each of its three professional franchises — Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Troy Polamalu and now Andrew McCutchen — and a place that has seen so many other sensational talents, so many iconic moments, a dozen world championships in the past half-century and not one but two chapters of Mario Lemieux, the greatest player to grace his sport.

We aren't just blessed. We're spoiled.

Spoiled rotten, at times.

At 7:08 p.m. Friday at Consol Energy Center, one of the top 10 athletes in Pittsburgh's history, right up there in that conversation generally reserved for Lemieux, Honus Wagner, Mean Joe Greene and their ilk, will take to the local stage for what could — that's could — be the final time.

And he will be booed.

Jaromir Jagr, Hart Trophy winner, five-time scoring champion, two-time Stanley Cup champion as a mullet-headed teen, will hit the ice as the New Jersey Devils' leading scorer — 11 goals, 14 assists — a couple months shy of his 42nd birthday. That's amazing.

And he will be booed.

Jagr will report to the rink with his teammates early this morning — he'll probably be the first to show — and he'll face the usual crowd of cameras and microphones with the trademark boyish grin, the hair shorter and grayer but not much else different. He'll speak with regret over how the relationship between him and the Penguins and their fans went so wrong. He'll talk about how much he loved it here, how he still worships Lemieux. Some of what he says won't make sense. But in the moment he's saying it, as those who know him best can attest, it'll come from the heart.

And he will be booed.

Why exactly?

Anyone remember?

Because of that ridiculous “dying alive” remark?

That was more than a decade ago.

Because he approached Lemieux about a trade?

Immaterial. The Penguins were in a huge financial hole and would have had to move him anyway.

So what is it?

Maybe Jagr won't retire after this season or anytime soon. Longtime fans will recall he once predicted he would play until he was 50. But if he does, if this final visit from the Devils to Consol this season really is his last, do yourself — and maybe your kids, too, if you're of the Lemieux/Jagr generation — a real favor and savor every time No. 68 goes over the boards.

When you see Jagr fend off a defender by turning his hips and protecting the puck with the resolve of a redwood, tell your son or daughter there has never been anyone better at it.

When you see Jagr take that one swooping stride into the slot and fire that wicked wrister, tell your kid that his goal total of 692 — now eighth all-time after just passing Lemieux's 690 — represents scoring at a level we'll never see again in Gary Bettman's NHL.

When you see Jagr dig up that extra gear as times get tough, the way he did in outperforming the Penguins' current stars while eliminating them the past two seasons as a member of the Flyers and Bruins, tell your kid what it means to be a big-game performer.

And you know what?

Tell your kid that, if not for Jagr, you just might not be sitting there.

Tell your child about May 2, 1999, the day of Jagr's defining performance. That was Game 6 of the first round against this same New Jersey franchise, and the Penguins faced elimination. Jagr wasn't supposed to play, hobbled by a bum groin, and it wasn't until just before faceoff that the Civic Arena crowd learned — and loved — that he would. The defense-first Devils led 2-1 with time ticking away, but Jagr, essentially skating on one leg, scored the tying goal with 2:12 left. And then, at the end of a long, already-dominant shift midway through the first overtime, he one-timed a Martin Straka feed past Martin Brodeur to bring one of the loudest roars the old place had ever heard.

As one wise man is still fond of saying, you had to be there to believe it.

The Penguins won Game 7 in New Jersey, too, and lost in the next round. but that's not what mattered here. The team was in bankruptcy, and sentiment was mounting that it could move.

Jagr would famously say many years later, “That was probably my best game ever, I would say. I'll probably never score a goal that important. Probably if I hadn't scored, the team wouldn't be in Pittsburgh right now. Crosby would be in Kansas City.”

That might be a stretch, might not. But on Thursday I ran it past Tom McMillan, then and now the Penguins' vice president of communications, and he credited the goal with at least a badly needed boost in spirits.

“I remember coming to Game 6 wondering if it would be the last hockey game ever played in Pittsburgh,” McMillan recalled. “It's easy to forget now how bleak things were. Financially it's obvious what a few more home playoff games would mean to a team in bankruptcy. But psychologically the feeling of winning a series and having such a positive atmosphere in those circumstances was incalculable.”

Yeah, tell your child that one. They'll love it.

That might be when they look around and ask what all the booing is about.

 

 
 


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