Olympics: Three former Penguins to carry flags
Former Penguins captain Jaromir Jagr will be the flag bearer for the Czech Republic at tonight's opening ceremonies for the Winter Olympics.
Luger Mark Grimmette will be the United States' flag bearer.
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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Call it the march of the former Penguins.
When the XXI Winter Olympics conduct their opening ceremonies tonight at BC Place Stadium, among the flag-bearers will be Jaromir Jagr for the Czech Republic, Aleksey Morozov for Russia and Ziggy Palffy for Slovakia, those countries' federations announced Thursday. All three were wingers for the Penguins within the past decade, and Jagr, in particular, was a star, having won two Stanley Cups and five NHL scoring titles in Pittsburgh before being traded in 2001.
The U.S. choice, announced late Wednesday night, will be luger Mark Grimmette.
Jagr, 37, who has spent the past two seasons in Russia's top league, and remains, according to Czech television reporter Tomas Jilek, "our country's treasure" in the Czech Republic, where he plans to finish his career after his contract with the club Avangard Omsk expires this summer.
Jagr arrived at Vancouver's airport Thursday and, in typically playful form, joked about his role.
"I have to practice what kind of smile I'm going to have," he said. "No, it's a great honor for me to do this for my country."
Morozov, 32, has become a dominant player in Russia since leaving Pittsburgh during the NHL's lockout in 2004, including a league MVP crown in 2007 with the club AK Bars Kazan, a league championship in 2006 and, now, being not only the captain of the Russian Olympic team but also the one leading all its athletes.
"I'm very pleased to be entrusted with such an honor," Morozov told the Russian Web site sportbox.ru. "Hundreds of sportsmen will represent Russia at the Olympics, and I was entrusted with the flag, which increases responsibility. I won't say that I was shocked by this news but rather pleasantly surprised."
Palffy, 37, retired from hockey in 2007 and has been an assistant coach in Slovakia, but he is back for what he is calling one final run.
This will mark the first time any member of the Penguins, current or former, will be so honored. Mario Lemieux might have had the opportunity at Salt Lake City in 2002, but NHL players then, as now, arrive at the Games after the opening ceremonies once the league shuts down. The current players are due Monday and Tuesday.
Grimmette, 39, a five-time Olympian from Muskegon, Mich., described himself as "shaking" upon being informed by longtime teammate Brian Martin, and it was clear in a news conference Thursday that the feeling had not abated.
"It's honor of a lifetime," Grimmette said. "There are a lot of great people on our Olympic team. I'd love to have seen my teammate get the honor."
Grimmette and Martin are the most successful luge duo in U.S. history, having won Olympic silver and bronze as well as three World Cup championships.
"This is my full-time job," Grimmette said. "You don't get rich doing it, but I love what I do."
Grimmette got his start in 1984, helping to build the luge track in Lake Placid, N.Y., and never let go. He was one of eight U.S. athletes who, at Salt Lake City in 2002, carried the tattered flag from the remains of the World Trade Center. And now, he and Martin are back after narrowly qualifying for the U.S. team through a race-off.
The other two lugers to carry the flag were Frank Masley in 1984, Cammy Myler in 1994.
Organizers are being secretive about the ceremonies, which begin at 9 p.m. Eastern time, though they are known to be highlighting Canadian culture, notably that of the native North American peoples of British Columbia.
The 82 participating nations will enter the stadium in alphabetical order, except for the tradition of Greece going first and the host nation last. Canadian speedskater Clara Hughes, the only athlete to win multiple medals in the Summer and Winter Games, will bear her nation's flag.
Roughly 40 heads of state will attend the ceremonies. U.S. President Barack Obama will not, sending Vice President Joe Biden and a small contingent of dignitaries including 1980 hockey gold medalist Mike Eruzione and 1968 figure skating gold medalist Peggy Fleming.
White House officials, when informing the Games' organizers of Obama's decision last month, explained that Obama had visited Ottawa last year and that it was Biden's turn.
The decision was welcomed by those responsible for security, as a protest is expected today in downtown Vancouver, close to the stadium. Protesters, expected to number about 1,000, plan to decry the $6 billion cost of the Games and the potential debt to British Columbia.