Thursday night saw the much anticipated return of Public Enemies No. 1 and No. 2 to the City of Pittsburgh, as Jaromir Jagr and Max Talbot entered the CONSOL Energy Center as members of the Philadelphia Flyers.
Both players have quite the history as members of the Pittsburgh Penguins. For Jagr, he's undoubtedly the second-best player to ever play for the franchise, a first-ballot Hall of Famer based on his time in black and gold, and there's still a chance his number will hang from the rafters someday in that town.
For Talbot, the chances of his number are slim, but that doesn't lessen his contribution. Talbot was the hero of the Penguins 2008 Stanley Cup run, most notably scoring the only two goals in Game 7 against the Detroit Red Wings to bring Pittsburgh their first hockey parade since Jagr's 1992 champs.
But for each player, their departures from a town that once threw them parades were acrimonious at best. Jagr, of course, was traded to the Washington Capitals back in 2001. In Pittsburgh, they say he was traded after a demand, and to his own credit, Jagr says he did ask for a trade, but only because the then-cash-strapped organization couldn't afford him.
In any event, though, Jagr was indeed traded, and he's been hated in Pittsburgh ever since.
When he returned to the NHL this past offseason, Pittsburgh fans had apparently let bygones be bygones after Jagr reportedly said that his "heart with in Pittsburgh." According to No. 68, however, the Pens were never really interested in his services -- not to the point that other teams like Philadelphia were, at least -- and he felt he had a better opportunity to play (and earn more money) on the other side of the state.
When he signed with the hated Flyers, all bets were off.
For Talbot, the decision to move to Eastern Pennsylvania was a simple one: The Flyers gave him a contract offer he couldn't refuse. But just as Johnny Damon signing with the Yankees was a slap in the face to Red Sox fans, Max Talbot signing with the Flyers was a slap in the face to Penguins fans, and there are a good number of people in Pittsburgh who scoff at the sound of his name nowadays.
So the scene was clearly set on Thursday night when the two rivals met for a 7 p.m. puck drop, just their second meeting of the season and the first at CONSOL. Somebody on Twitter -- not sure who, apologies -- compared the scene outside the arena to that of the scene in Slap Shot where the Chiefs roll into a visiting city to protests. We're pretty sure they were exaggerating, but we're not completely sure if the Flyers bus mooned said protestors.
Inside the building, the atmosphere was playoff-like, a stark contrast to what it's been like for the majority of the year in the Penguins' fresh new home.
You can get a full recap of the action in NHL Scores & More this morning here at SBNation.com, but here's the synopsis: Pittsburgh scored early, but the incessant booing seemed only to fuel Jagr, and by the time he scored a beautiful goal off a backhand shot in the second period to give the Flyers a 2-1 lead, the orange and black were ready to rally around him to victory.
Talbot was part of that, making a bit of noise offensively throughout but mostly contributing solid defensive play, including on a penalty kill late in the third period. He ultimately picked up an empty net goal to seal the game at 4-2 thanks to that solid defensive play. It really couldn't have been scripted any better, especially considering HBO cameras were in the house documenting every twist and turn.
The story, however, wasn't what happened on the ice. Yes, the Flyers picked up the two points, not only widening the gap between themselves and the Pens in the Atlantic but closing the gap between themselves and the Rangers, turning Monday's Winter Classic into a showdown for first place.
It was really all about what happened off the ice. The fan reaction to Talbot, who was cheered as a hero, and Jagr, who was booed like a villain. Maybe it's because I'm an outsider to the Pittsburgh sports scene -- actually, about as far outside as one can get as a Philly sports fan -- but I can't seem to wrap my head around this.
You'd think the wounds would run deeper in the case of Max Talbot considering the recent nature of his departure. After all, he played for the Pens as recently as last spring, and in his case, it was really all about the money.
You know Talbot would have rather stayed in Pittsburgh. He's a guy that clearly loved his time there -- remember his interview on last year's HBO 24/7? -- and surely would have taken less money to be a member of the team again. But the Flyers offered him a five year, $9 million contract that was above and beyond possibly anything he could have expected, and you just don't turn down money like that when you're a guy like Max Talbot.
While you can't blame him for that at all, the fact remains that he left for the money, completely on his own accord, to a hated division rival, and this was his first game back in Pittsburgh since all of that went down.
As for Jagr, he's said many times since July that he signed in Philadelphia because he'd have a bigger role there, and that's certainly been the case. Would he be on Pittsburgh's top line? Maybe, but that's only because Sidney Crosby has been out of the mix with a concussion.
It's been reported multiple times that Jagr had a contract offer on the table larger than the $3.3 million over one season that Philly is paying him this year, so it's not as if money was his main motivation at all. As he's said, he could have stayed in Russia if he wanted to earn more money, and there it'd be tax free.
Jagr didn't leave Pittsburgh in free agency but was traded away, had played any number of games in town since leaving there 10-and-a-half years ago, and had played for two other hated teams in the Rangers and Capitals during that span as well. He was an integral piece in the first two Stanley Cups in Penguins history, back-to-back in 1991 and '92. Without him, those Cups probably never happen.
Talbot, meanwhile, scored a few goals as a gritty role player in the run up to the Penguins third Cup win, and just happened to have a huge Game 7 to help win that Cup.
One guy is a nice footnote in Pens history. The other? A legend. Yet the difference in how they were received by the CONSOL faithful on Thursday night was completely flip-flopped from what the history would suggest.
Somebody is going to have to explain this one for me, because it just doesn't make any sense.