PITTSBURGH — Locker-cleanout day always is a brutal day, one of the worst days of the year for all sports teams. It signifies the end of a season and, unless your team won the championship, of failure to one degree or another. Maybe worst of all, you know the same group won't be back to try again next season. Some of your teammates — your best buddies — will move on. The only thing guaranteed is there will be change. That's just the harsh nature of pro sports.
But Tuesday seemed like an especially difficult day at Penguins headquarters because there's a really good chance this was the last time Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang will be in that locker room after 16 seasons.
That hurtful realization added to what's been a tough year for Pittsburgh sports.
First, Mike Lange announced his retirement after 46 years as the voice of the Penguins. This city has had three legendary, iconic broadcasters — Bob Prince, Myron Cope and Lange. Hockey nights here just aren't the same without Lange.
Then, Ben Roethlisberger retired. He was the best quarterback in Steelers history — even Terry Bradshaw will tell you that — and led the franchise to two Super Bowl wins. He will be enshrined in Canton in five years.
It was difficult to say goodbye to Lange and Roethlisberger.
It's always difficult to say goodbye to good people who have delivered so many tremendous thrills and so much wonderful entertainment.
Certainly, it will be difficult to say goodbye to Malkin and Letang if they leave as free agents in July, as I fully expect.
Everyone from Mike Sullivan to Sidney Crosby paid proper tribute to Malkin and Letang. Sullivan said they, along with Crosby, "have established the standard of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin." Crosby said, "There's a lot of belief and trust in one another. There's a confidence level that's very rare. It's unique. It's special. We all appreciate that. We've had success, too."
Of course, Malkin and Letang said they hope to stay with the Penguins if fair contracts can be worked out. Malkin said, "Pittsburgh is my second hometown. I love this city and I love these fans so much. I hope I stay here. I hope to retire here." Letang said, "It's always been the main goal to stay here. I certainly tried to help build something good here. Obviously, I want to keep it going."