CALGARY – His mother found the old Calgary Flames sweater recently, tucked away in a box in the attic. It was child-sized, perfect for the 9-year-old Jarome Iginla. It was given to him for his first minor hockey tryout, in St. Albert, just to the northwest of Edmonton, a gift by necessity from his grandfather.
St. Albert was Oilers country. The Oilers were in the middle of a four-titles-in-five-seasons dynasty in the mid-1980s, and St. Albert was theirs.
But Iginla needed a jersey for the tryout, and the sporting goods store had only one in his size: the Calgary Flames.
Had everything that came later not happened, the jersey would have been given away or thrown away or lost to the years, gone and forgotten. But it did happen, and Iginla was traded from Dallas, the team that drafted him 11th overall, to Calgary in December of 1995, setting the stage for a long and deep relationship between city and player.
Iginla would score 525 goals as a Flame over a career in the city that lasted 16 years. He would help bring the Flames to the brink of a Stanley Cup title, one controversial no-goal call from a championship. He would build a Hall-of-Fame legacy in a city not far from where he grew up.
He was the athlete in a town where little matters more than hockey, a symbol of success in the fat years, a symbol of frustration in the lean ones. He grew guarded because of the demands, hoping at times to be left to do what he did best, just play, as he built his name on the ice and in the community, all while wearing that familiar flaming C.
It was his first sweater and it was supposed to be his last.
Iginla began his NHL career with a question mark.
The headline that greeted him in Calgary was “Jarome Who?” He had, after all, been traded for future Hall of Famer Joe Nieuwendyk. Iginla was a junior player, the centerpiece of a franchise-remaking deal. The people of Calgary had no idea what they’d gotten.
Nor, in truth, did the general manager who traded for him.
“Did you know you were getting a superstar player?” said Al Coates, then the GM of the Flames. “The answer to that is no. I would challenge anybody on our staff who helped me with this to have a different opinion than that.”
A name for himself
They thought they were getting a player who would be a solid professional. They learned quickly it would be much more. Iginla signed his first pro contract just hours before his first game, Game 3 of the first round of the 1996 playoffs, having been called at 1 a.m. that morning on an emergency basis.
Iginla had an assist in that game, a goal in the next, harbingers of the 1,095 points he would score with the team.
But it wasn’t just that. He was an Edmonton kid, embraced by a city three hours due south. He was loved. Yes, loved. He brought them oh-so-close to a title, and endured more down years than anyone in Calgary would like to remember. He was the face of a team, a franchise, a city, a province, even a country, after his Olympic glories brought gold to Canada.
“There has been a love affair with Jarome,” said Craig Conroy, a close friend and teammate who now works in the Flames front office. “He does all the little things. He wants to give back all the time. And I think the whole city appreciated that when he was young, and he continued to do it even when he became a superstar. I think that’s what brought the two together.”
A fan would mention he’d always wanted to see a game. Tickets would appear with his name at the will call window. A child’s disappointed face could be seen outside the bus window. Iginla would get off the bus, out of his safe haven, for just one more signature. And one more after that.
His mother, raising Iginla by herself, had gone into the red to provide hockey gear and travel team dues, working multiple jobs. So he gave that back, too, not only paying off her debts, but giving $700,000 to KidSport Calgary, a charity that provides underprivileged children the opportunity to play sports. That number rose to a million dollars when combined with matching gifts from the Flames Foundation.
As KidSport Calgary’s regional manager Mark Kosak attempts to find a replacement for Iginla, that relationship between city and sports icon becomes ever clearer. Kosak might need two players, maybe three, to find the same impact Iginla had.
“There’s not one guy who can do justice the way Jarome did,” Kosak said. “It’s like finding the next guy to wear No. 12. Nobody wants to wear No. 12. Nobody wants to try to fill Jarome’s shoes. He’s larger than life.”
A man for all seasons
That love, though, came with demands. Even Christmas brought obligations. Iginla would make the three-hour trip to Edmonton for the holidays, and his family would ask for signatures. They would bring items to autograph. His mother had to put a stop to it.
“He had enough pressure going on,” said Susan Schuchard, Iginla’s mother. “I’d even try to protect him from family. I’m like, ‘It’s Christmas. Please.’ ”
Flames vice president of communications Peter Hanlon became Iginla’s guardian. He shielded the star from the demands of being himself. He handled communication from outsiders, even from KidSport.
“It’s probably fair,” Iginla said, when asked if he had become guarded. “It’s probably fair to say that about me.”
Few seemed to have felt slighted. It was managed expertly, so Iginla remained beloved. But he also was able to find some of the privacy he desired, since, by all accounts, he would have been just as happy without the fame. He admits that it wore on him sometimes, mostly when he’d hear or read things that weren’t true. Gossip. Rumor. Questions about his desire.
There wasn’t much, but when it came, it chafed him.
“You start to get offended because it starts getting personal because you’re not winning games,” Iginla said. “But sometimes you’re not winning because you’re not good enough.
“It’s just that when it’s all hockey, hockey, hockey, it starts changing — it’s not just on the ice that we just weren’t good enough. [They] start looking for things. I honestly don’t want to come across as bitter, because I’m not. I don’t think about it that much. But it just kind of got to the point where some of the guardedness — if I was guarded — about maybe doing extra stuff or interviews, maybe that was where it came from.”
He wasn’t always comfortable with his role as captain of the Flames, as the demand for his time changed and the requests increased. But that was the responsibility, so he grew into it. He forced himself to.
Teammate Martin Gelinas noted the moment Iginla finally seemed to fully inhabit the role. Iginla stood up in the dressing room when the Flames were on the brink of losing to Vancouver in Game 7 of their first-round series in 2004, a series they weren’t supposed to win. He spoke. The feeling in the room shifted. They won. And kept winning, all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, a heartbreaking seven-game loss to Tampa Bay.
“When he took that team on his shoulders and made it happen, the city embraced him even more,” Gelinas said. “This is where he went from a really good player to a great player, where the city said, ‘This is our captain. This is our guy.’”
Iginla wasn’t a natural leader. He got better, though. He became what they needed.
But the Flames would never reach those heights again.
“I don’t think I was under an extreme amount of pressure,” Iginla said. “I think if you look at any of the Canadian cities, that’s part of it. When you’re winning, it’s great. If you’re not, it’s not as good, as far as pressure.”
He felt the pressure the most in the last few years, as time and opportunity were winding down. There was uncertainty. There was, as he put it, “fear of the unknown.” Calgary wasn’t going to get better, not without a complete overhaul, and it was looking more and more like a divorce was inevitable.
And then it arrived. He never got to say goodbye.
Chasing the Cup
Iginla’s time in Calgary started with that question mark. It ended, too, with a question mark.
The day after he was traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Calgary Herald asked: “Will hockey ever be the same?”
The Flames will go on, albeit in a diminished, rebuilding form. It will be different, though. Because for all those years, even those down years, there was a reason to come to the Saddledome. There was a player who could be counted on for at least 30 goals, sometimes as many as 50 (Iginla did it twice).
That is over.
Iginla took his turn in Pittsburgh, a disappointment for all involved. It was disappointing for the Flames, who had a deal struck — then nixed — with the Bruins to ship him to Boston. It was disappointing for the Penguins, who didn’t win the Stanley Cup despite being a favorite, especially after acquiring the then-35-year-old Iginla in March last season. Ultimately, though, it was most disappointing for Iginla.
He chose the Penguins, waiving his no-trade contract and spurning the Bruins, because he believed Pittsburgh had the best chance to win the title that had eluded him. He wasn’t thinking long term, not about family and schools, not about anything but the Cup. It didn’t happen. The Penguins were swept by the Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals.
“That wasn’t easy,” Iginla said. “That wasn’t easy to take at the time.”
He took more time off than usual before he got back on skates after his season ended, a full month. It wasn’t until July when he got back on the ice.
“I was a little burned out,” he said. “It was just — it was a bigger adjustment than I thought. Moving and playing.
“By the end of it, I just felt a little burned out. Not that I ever doubt the enjoyment of the game — I love it — I just felt physically I just needed to rest and mentally and just not think about hockey for a little break.”
By that time, he had signed with the Bruins, in one of the more surprising twists of the offseason. First, he rejected them to join the Penguins. Now he wanted in?
“Might as well ask,” Iginla said of his mind-set at the time. “I don’t know if they really still want me and I can understand if they’re very offended or take it very personal. I can understand that. But I figured I might as well ask.
“The biggest thing as a free agent, I want to be on a team that has an opportunity to win. At this stage it’s not about just lifestyle or nice weather or anything like that. It’s about being on a team that has a chance to win and in Boston you get a little bit of all that.”
He knew Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli might think he was crazy. Chiarelli didn’t, and inked Iginla to a deal that could be worth $6 million, with incentives. Milan Lucic’s reaction, typical among Iginla’s future teammates? “First, I laughed,” he said.
Iginla can understand the reaction. But he wanted Boston. Boston wanted him. And he was heading to a new home.
Shirt off his back
It took less than 48 hours for the Flames pro shop to sell out of Iginla’s Calgary jerseys, knocked down to half price from their original $225. Few pieces of merchandise remained in late August on a quiet day at the still-rebuilding Saddledome, which was severely flooded in the summer.
“Everybody wanted a piece of him before he left,” said a man working the counter at FanAttic.
Tucked into the sale rack, there are still some reminders of Iginla’s tenure in Calgary — 19 T-shirts marked down to $12.50, a couple of long-sleeved shirts to $20. A few novelties are left, tiny sticks with his No. 12, and some souvenir pucks.
Fans still showed up to the Saddledome in Iginla attire. Except some of that Iginla attire bore the logo of his new team, the Penguins. Maybe some fans will don a No. 12 spoked-B at the arena this fall.
Soon, though, there will be nothing left. The Flames named a new captain on Sept. 20, Mark Giordano, a player dwarfed in every way by the legacy of the man who wore the “C” for the decade before Giordano. Iginla sold his Calgary dream home less than a month after he was traded.
He was never able to bring them what they wanted, to return the Cup to Calgary. So, like Ray Bourque before him in Boston, knowing it would never happen in the city where it should have, the Flames shipped him away. Iginla will have to win one elsewhere. Perhaps that will come in Boston, in his second season away from Calgary, as it did with Bourque for the Colorado Avalanche.
“I remember saying when I was younger if I had a choice I’d rather win it near the end of my career than at the beginning and never win again,” Iginla said. “I maybe shouldn’t have said that. I should have said I’d rather win at the beginning and the end and the middle.
“That’s what I should have said. That’s what I was really hoping for.”
He laughs now, ruefully. He has come from a post-practice workout with Zdeno Chara, another 36-year-old trying to hold back the hands of time. Iginla has left a place that was his home for nearly half of his life, coming to a new team and a new country, searching for what he couldn’t find with the Flames.
On his last day in Calgary, Iginla couldn’t play, couldn’t risk being injured, so he didn’t get to skate with the Flames a final time. It was just over. Conroy remembers him saying, “It’s disappointing. I just wanted to do it for the city. They’ve been so great to me. I wanted to be able to give them back a Stanley Cup, and I wasn’t able to do it.”
He always wanted to win it in Calgary, to justify that love affair. He couldn’t. Now he moves on, and tries to win one for himself.Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.