Penguins raise No. 68 to rafters, reuniting Jagr, Lemieux as franchise icons

In a touching and sincere ceremony, NHL legend Jaromir Jagr had his number retired by his beloved Pittsburgh Penguins, complete with video tributes, speeches, laughs, tears and still just enough memories to honour his long and storied career.

PITTSBURGH — For one hour on Sunday afternoon, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ PPG Paints Arena ceased to be a hockey rink. Instead, for a brief spell out on the ice under the lights, it became a museum, a house of glory, a tribute to the greatness this city has amassed.

At the centre of it all — just as he used to be — was Jaromir Jagr, flanked by his family, by his idol Mario Lemieux, by the teammates who helped him bring Pittsburgh its first championship three decades ago. 

And on the other side of the glass, there was the Penguins faithful, looking on with reverence, appreciating the masterpiece.

The crowd packed into the stands two hours before the puck dropped on the Penguins-Kings game that followed the ceremony, a full house anxious to not miss a moment of the festivities. Hours earlier, before he walked out to centre ice to take in the fans who’d once called him their own, Jagr sat at a table in a conference room buried elsewhere in the arena, wondering aloud about how it all would go — the reception he might get, whether the past has been forgiven, how he would react to whatever happened out there.

“I heard a lot of boos lately. It’s understandable, I was playing for a different team,” he’d said, a vein of emotion running through his voice already. “I never thought I’m the guy who’s going to cry if I’m going to talk about something. I always laugh. So, I hope today I’m going to laugh.”

Sunday night, No. 68 finally made that long-awaited, nervy trek across the ice — past the table displaying his collection of NHL trophies, past his championship teammates on hand to take in his moment — and stood at the podium, looking to the crowd, bracing himself.

But all that came were cheers, rained down with such weight, with such heft, you could all but feel the drowning out of all those past ills, all those years of tumult. Before he could speak, the applause halted, but only to make way for a chant that had begun breaking through the wave of noise. 

‘Jagr! Jagr! Jagr!’ 

And there, at centre ice, the man of the hour flashed his signature grin, the one that fans in these parts came to know well all those years ago.

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“I remember my first coach, Bob Johnson, would always say, ‘It’s a great day for hockey,’” Jagr said, taking the mic. “Today, I’m going to change it a little bit, and say: ‘It’s a great day for me.’”

For the city of Pittsburgh, for the fans who live and die by this hockey team’s every rise and stumble — for the players still wearing the logo on their chest themselves, too — this night was more than a ceremony honouring a past legend. It was a homecoming, a gap bridged, at long last.

“When you look at the history of hockey, he’s somebody that you’re always going to think about,” Sidney Crosby had said a day earlier, after Jagr had taken the ice for a skate with the Penguins’ current legends in front of a packed house at the club’s practice facility. “The fact that he played here, and had the impact that he did here, what he was able to accomplish over his whole career, it’s incredible. … You know, there’s a lot of pride that comes with playing for this team, for a lot of reasons. He’s one of them.

“He played for some other teams since playing here, but for everything to come full circle, to be back here, around some of his teammates that he played with, experience this whole weekend with them, with his family, all those things, I’m sure a lot of memories come back. … I think it brings all of us back to his time here, the great memories he provided, just his legacy.”

The Penguins allowed fans to cherish every chapter of that legacy Sunday.

The crowd was on their feet as highlights played of Jagr’s most iconic goals, broadcast from the jumbotron in cinematic fashion. They were back up as each member of the ’91 championship squad marched out to the stage set up on the ice, and again when former GM Craig Patrick — who drafted Jagr back in 1990 — thanked the Czech legend for all he’d done for the city. 

If there was any moment of ovation that rivalled the one Jagr received, it was the booming applause that came just before, when Lemieux made his way to the stage. Speaking to the crowd soon after, Jagr couldn’t help but reflect on the impact No. 66 had on the journey being celebrated this night. 

“The connection between me and Pittsburgh started a long time ago,” he told the crowd. “I always believed in God, I always believed in a higher power. I always believed what we wish for is going to happen. When I was young, I was watching the TV — there was one guy totally dominating the game, he was better than the rest of them. Since that day, he became my idol. I wanted to be like him. I made a wish — I wished one day we would play together. It was Mario Lemieux. 

“And it happened.” 

Now, three decades later, No. 68 is back where he belongs, alongside No. 66, the pair’s banners enshrined in Penguins history together, forever.

Jagr stood with his mother, Anna, and his girlfriend, Dominika, on each arm as the banner was unveiled and lifted up to the rafters, where it will now sit. The crowd took to their feet again, as did the star-studded crew of teammates behind him. 

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When it all came to an end, Crosby and the current Penguins offered a tribute of their own, taking the ice for warmups in mulleted wigs, with No. 68 on their backs. Jagr joined them, taking one last spin around the sheet wearing black and gold, raising a hand to the Penguins faithful one final time.

 “I was with Geno and Sid — you could see they were emotional,” said Kris Letang of the ceremony, after the final buzzer wrapped on what wound up a narrow loss to the Kings. “You know, it’s someone that we looked up to as kids. … It’s special. Watching those old videos of him makes me think of Geno actually, in a big way. And you look at the old Mario, and you’re looking at Sid. It was fun to be a part of, to see how this city was touched by him, and how much this city meant to him.”

“Just an honour to be part of it,” added his head coach, Mike Sullivan. “It was an inspiration to all of us who had the privilege to watch it up close.”

It’s a moment this franchise, and this city, won’t soon forget. The night No. 68 came home. It’s one the man himself surely won’t either. Because even after a winding, thus far unending, career that took Jagr through eight other NHL franchises, through two other leagues, the ageless wonder never forgot where it all started. 

That much was made clear earlier in the day, as Jagr sat in an arena conference room, preparing for his moment. It was then that he was asked whether, after all these years, he still feels at home in Pittsburgh.

“Yes, I do,” he said. “And I always did.”

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