On Friday, Penguins fans learned that former star forward Jaromir Jagr would not be returning to the team after a decade-long absence. Jagr, instead, committed the sin of signing with Pittsburgh's most bitter hockey rival: The Philadelphia Flyers. Most Pens fans that I know were ready to welcome Jagr back even though his relationship with the team was strained for many years. When it was announced that Jagr would instead be playing over in Philadelphia, the general sentiment was, "Once a jerk, always a jerk! Good riddance to bad rubbish!"
Soon after, however, Pens fans received more bad news: Max Talbot, one of the most popular and charismatic members of Pittsburgh's recent playoff and Stanley Cup teams, also signed with the Philadelphia Flyers
Most fans couldn't understand how a player that accomplished so much with the Penguins' organization could even think about signing with the Flyers.
Of course, this is nothing new in sports. It's been happening for as long as free agency has been around. I remember back in the 90's when Raiders' legend Marcus Allen left to sign with their most hated rivals, the Kansas City Chiefs. Back then, I thought, "Wow, that's incredible! How could he do that?" But of course, knowing the bad relationship that had developed between Allen and Raiders' owner Al Davis, it was probably an intentional slap in the face to Davis and the entire organization.
A more recent example in pro sports was Johnny Damon, one of the heroes of Boston's 2004 World Series victory, leaving the Red Sox to sign with the rival New York Yankees after saying he would never, ever sign with New York no matter how much money they offered.
In most cases, a high-profile free agent has several options so why go play for a rival?
I know it's a business, but I think we, as fans, like to believe that the rivalries are just as important to the players as they are to us. When we see our favorite guys out there day-after-day, week-after-week, and year-after-year playing in absolute wars against a hated opponent, we want to believe that the last thing they'd ever want to do is play on the same team as the "bad guys".
For instance, one of the things that Talbot was most famous for during his time in Pittsburgh was his fight in a playoff game at Philadelphia and subsequent "shhhhhhhhhhhh!" to the Flyers fans as he left the ice. That fight was seen as a momentum-shifter in the game as the Penguins came back and eliminated Philadelphia on the way to eventually capturing the 2009 Stanley Cup.
"Shhhhhhh!" t-shirts were made; Talbot even issued another celebratory "Shhhhhhhh!" to Penguins' fans during the team's victory parade. Now he's going to be playing for the Flyers? Ouch!
Talbot was far from a great player with the Penguins, but he was the hero of game 7 of that Stanley Cup win over the Red Wings with his two clutch goals.
Antwaan Randle El wasn't a great player when he played for the Steelers the first time around, but like Talbot, he was one of the most popular players with the fans and a Super Bowl XL hero after his famous touchdown pass to Hines Ward that sealed the victory. Imagine if Randle El would have signed with the Patriots instead of the Redskins.
I sure wouldn't have liked it very much.
Someone mentioned that Talbot going to the Flyers is like Woodson winding up in Baltimore in the late 90's after he left Pittsburgh. I think that's a bit of a stretch, and a little revisionist history. In the years that Woodson was with Baltimore, the Jaguars and Titans were regarded as the Steelers most-hated divisional rivals in the then AFC Central. I don't think Steelers fans started looking at the Ravens as "Enemy Number One" until after Woodson had already left Baltimore.
Ike Taylor is up for free agency once this lockout ever ends. If he cannot come to an agreement with the Steelers and instead decides to sign elsewhere, is there a team that you would absolutely not want him to sign with and if he did, would you ever be able to forgive him?
Has there ever been a Steeler that has signed with another team that you simply could not stomach?