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Gorman: Something missing from Mellon

Kevin Gorman
| Friday, April 9, 2010

The final regular-season game at Mellon Arena was always going to be a celebration of Penguins hockey that spans generations but unmistakably revolves around Mario Lemieux.

It's Mario's house. The one he brought alive, and kept open.

That Lemieux saved the sport in Pittsburgh — not once, but twice — is as obvious to hockey fans as the cross-street presence of Consol Energy Center on Centre Avenue is to spelling impending doom for The Igloo.

What makes this a special hockey town and the stainless steel dome a special arena is that Lemieux isn't the only great one to have played in it.

That is why the red-carpet ceremony Thursday night was so memorable. The Penguins made the gesture to honor the men who kept hockey relevant in Pittsburgh before Lemieux's arrival, after his retirement and into his ownership of the organization.

Still, something was missing.

Make that someone.

It wasn't the same without Jaromir Jagr.

Jagr was extended an invitation, but was one of a number of members from the Penguins' first two Stanley Cup champions who couldn't attend. Neither could Tom Barrasso, Scotty Bowman, Ron Francis, Joe Mullen, Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens or Rick Tocchet, all important ingredients.

"That's what it takes to make a championship team," said Ken Schinkel, the former Penguins player and coach who oversaw the 1984 draft that netted Lemieux. "The elite player that Mario is, he makes everybody better. But you've got to have that other talented guy."

Jagr, indisputably, was that other talented guy.

This summer is the 20th anniversary of the Penguins drafting Jagr. Next season will be the 10th since he left in a forgettable trade that unforgettably returned Kris Beech, Ross Lupaschuk and Michal Sivek. In between those two landmark dates, the Penguins made 11 consecutive playoffs and won the Stanley Cup twice.

"I think later on some things happened that were unfortunate, but I'm sure Mario still has a place in his heart for him," said Paul Coffey, the Hall of Fame defenseman. "As good as Mario was and is, you still need a supporting cast. Gretzky had Messier and Kurri and the rest of us. You can't win by yourself — and Jaromir was huge, a great hockey player."

One of the charms of Mellon Arena is a banner commemorating the Penguins' 13 league scoring champions and five Most Valuable Player honorees. Jagr owns five of those Art Ross trophies, including four consecutive from 1999-2001, and a Hart Trophy.

The first order of business at Consol Energy Center — is it too early to start calling it the Goal Mine, with the way Sidney Crosby is scoring• — should be to retire Jagr's No. 68 and hang it across from Lemieux's No. 66.

But the absence of some of the Penguins greats didn't overshadow the presence of the more than 50 former players who walked onto the ice one final time to cheers, in groups that represented their meaningfulness to the history of the organization. Lemieux was last, and to the loudest cheers, but it was everything that preceded him that made the moment.

The originals — general manager Jack Riley and coach Red Sullivan, with Andy Bathgate (who scored the Penguins' first goal at then-Civic Arena) and Les Binkley — were followed by the foursome who served as players and head coaches: Schinkel, Gene Ubriaco, Rick Kehoe and Eddie Olczyk.

But it wasn't until the introduction of Eddie Johnston, who drafted Lemieux, that the capacity crowd delivered a standing ovation. The Century Line, of Syl Apps, Jean Pronovost and Lowell MacDonald, was then serenaded with the chant, "Let's Go Pro-no-vost."

Curiously, the crowd gave greater cheers to a tough guy like Francois Leroux than it did to 50-goal scorers Pierre Larouche and Mike Bullard. It paused to applaud Mark Johnson, a Miracle on Ice hero, but should have given a moment of silence to his late father, legendary coach Badger Bob.

What was more disappointing was that fans followed a rousing reception to Gary Roberts with a lukewarm response to former general manager Craig Patrick, making his first return since 2006. The architect of the first two Cup champions, Patrick also drafted Brooks Orpik, Marc-Andre Fleury, Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, all prominent players on the third Cup champions.

Finally, the collection of Penguins posed for a photo in what was a fitting regular-season finale for The Igloo but, hopefully, not its last curtain call.

"The most fitting sendoff for this building would be a Stanley Cup," Coffey said. "All three have been on the road, which is great. But it sucks for the fans. You want to actually see your team hoist the Cup in your building."

This is the Penguins' last chance to do that, before the building is gone.

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