Jaromir Jagr's flirtation with a return to the NHL and the Penguins should serve as a sharp reminder that Pittsburgh fans need to learn how to appreciate their star players when they have them in town —not during the twilight of their careers.
Jagr was vilified by Pittsburgh fans, and so was traded for what amounted to less than a bag of hockey pucks, as hockey pucks must occupy a more permanent spot in the memory of Penguins fans than Kris Beech, Michal Sivek and Ross Lupaschuk.
In the way Jagr was sent packing from the town that couldn't appreciate him, a similar course is being set for Evgeni Malkin, by the ignorance of the fanbase and the sometimes unduly harsh nature of the local media.
Malkin has a strong share of fans on his side, but there exists the very real sect of Pittsburgh natives who would trade the star pivot because, among other indiscretions, they simply can't relate to a quiet youngster who struggles with speaking English—ironic, given our own tenuous grasp of the language.
To those who think the Penguins could bring in a pair of top-flight wingers for Crosby on the salary commanded by Malkin, the answer is no, a thousand times no — it isn't now and may never be time to let go of Evgeni Malkin.
The idea of trading Malkin isn't something that comes up only during headline discussions among Bleacher Report writers. It's the latest episode in a long-standing Pittsburgh tradition, one we're not to be proud of. It's something on the order of Pierogi Races and our nascent acceptance of the digital age, a tradition that persists in spite of common sense, demanding that we question, scrutinize and ostracize our finest athletes for no reason other than we cannot relate to their on-camera personae.
Does Malkin Receive Undue Criticism from Fans and Media?
The concept of Pittsburgh dumping one of its best players is better captured through a portrait of the yinzer dynamic than through analyzing trade scenarios at CapGeek.com.
For those unfamiliar with the yinzer dynamic, let me set a scene for you:
Like many hockey-starved Pittsburghers, I attended the first two days of the 2010-11 training camp last September, which the team opens to the public each season, for free.
The turnout would have made Thrashers fans blush. The Penguins brought in more fans in each of those two days than the Pirates did for their games over the same weekend, and likely still would have even with an admission fee.
The experience was excellent. Fans were free to roam the freshly unwrapped CONSOL Energy Center and see the ice from all angles. The team showcased some of its youngest talent to its most dedicated fans. Names like Simon Despres, Mark Letestu and Eric Tangradi were made visible to a large part of the team's audience for the first time.
I took my seat halfway down the lower bowl, notebook in hand. The pages filled with excited scrawl as each of the practice units took the ice. The Penguins organization had catered well to its fans since the lockout and those fans' gratefulness shone through in sheer attendance.
Equal parts appreciation and anticipation were palpable throughout the stands. We were ready for our hockey team to take the ice again.
It was hockey season in Pittsburgh.
"Yins know if Malkin don't do nothin' in camp they're gowna cut 'im before preseason."
To be sure, it was hockey season in Pittsburgh.
I didn't hear the rest of the conversation behind me. I listened, but heard only the sound of the aneurysm, rising, making its way slowly to the most indignant part of my skull.
The steel city has a long-standing tradition of being hypercritical of our best players. It's a selective sort of thing, often based on those players who are either unable or unwilling to communicate well on camera.
Barry Bonds was no media darling, and he was sent happily packing after the 1992 season. If there were a city further from Pittsburgh than San Francisco, fans would have rather sent him there.
Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris were vilified by Steelers fans, exiting the city unceremoniously after providing the championship football teams by which Pittsburghers identify themselves to this day.
Jaromir Jagr left town bitterly, grossly misunderstood as he was uncomfortable in front of a microphone and likely embittered by a town who expected him not just to be as productive a hockey player as Mario Lemieux—they expected him to be Mario Lemieux.
Are Pittsburgh Natives Too Hard on Own Stars?
People are often afraid of what they find to be unfamiliar or are unable to understand. When it's one of our star athletes whom we are unable to understand in ways that please us, we Pittsburghers react first with skepticism, then with impatience, and finally with utter disregard.
There is no scenario in which the Penguins could replace the talent, potential and production of Evgeni Malkin under an umbrella of 8.7 million dollars per season. Malkin is one of the premier centers in the game, a keystone on which the Penguins' philosophy of strength at the center position is built.
Malkin was one of the game's finest defensive forwards when he came into the league a few years ago. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy in 2009, added an Art Ross in the same season and came within a handful a points of doing so the year before.
We forget that Crosby's insane scoring pace during the first half of the 2010-11 season was only a little better than the pace Malkin maintained from the middle of the 2007-08 season through the Stanley Cup victory.
Malkin possesses Crosby's skill set on the ice, but not in the locker room. He is overshadowed by Crosby's ease in front of a camera, and the accompanying hype as provided by the NHL's marketing department. As with Lemieux and Jagr, the difference between Crosby and Malkin is one of comfort before a microphone.
For Pittsburgh, that's enough to send out the torch and pitchfork crowd.
The notion that Malkin might be suitably replaced in any way is asinine —uninformed hopefulness realized at its peak, something best left to drunken phone calls made to local sports radio the day after a playoff loss.
And have you heard about Crosby's concussion? Should his career be truncated by the injury, it might be decades before the Penguins ever acquire another franchise center who is capable of putting a team on his back.
Not counting that one they drafted six years ago, of course.
For years already, local media has either diagrammed or helped contribute to Malkin's eventual vilification by Pittsburgh fans. Our expectations of him are mountainous, and his struggles are unforgivable. Should the day ever come, his departure will be marked by a legion of local writers loudly proclaiming that they "saw this one coming."
God forbid we remember that our vicarious expectations of athletic success are planted on the mind and body of a 24-year-old living in a country which couldn't be further removed from his own.
Circumstances be damned —we'll still find ways to reflexively distance ourselves from one of the best things to happen to our team in years.
The impetus for this piece, fans are now in love with the idea of Jaromir Jagr returning to town for a farewell tour. The selective amnesia about our own behavior is laughable. Jagr was misunderstood by fans and the media, turned into a pariah, and left a situation which we helped to make uncomfortable.
Why on Earth would he come back?
In some ways, the old guard of Penguins fans, those who booed Jagr all the way to Washington, shouldn't be afforded the luxury of seeing him don the black and gold next season. The decade since his departure does nothing to excuse the way we treated one of our best assets.
Penguins fans do not deserve to see Jagr back in town.
If Evgeni Malkin eventually leaves the city on similar terms, a course that is already being set by disgruntled experts in the stands of an open training camp, we will have deserved to see him go, traded happily to the team that cannot believe its own good fortune.
Traded, that is, if we don't cut 'im n'at, first.