After 16 seasons in Calgary and 20 in the NHL, Jarome Iginla figured the story could finally be told about how a young kid from an Edmonton suburb was destined to be a Calgary Flame.
In the midst of a brilliantly humble, thankful, funny and touching speech to mark his official retirement from a Hall of Fame career Monday, the longtime Flames captain regaled a jam-packed audience with a western-Canadian spin on Le Chandail.
“My grandpa took me to my first tryout at age seven and we didn’t know there were no jerseys or socks handed out,” said Iginla.
“So I skated around and everyone had their outfits on and were good players and I’m skating around with no jersey or socks. My grandpa had to run and get me a jersey from the sports store in St. Albert and he brought back one I wasn’t that thrilled to get – it was a Calgary Flames jersey.”
Armed with perfect comedic timing, the 41-year-old had to add a token Battle of Alberta shot.
“It was probably the last one left at the time,” he smiled, drawing laughter from a healthy gathering of friends, family, former teammates, Flames staffers and media gathered in a Saddledome lounge.
“The cards were stacked against me. I think not wearing a jersey and then getting a Flames one made sure I was put on the worst team. Fact was, I wasn’t very good when I started.”
Eleven years later, the Dallas Stars first-round pick was traded to Calgary for Joe Nieuwendyk, prompting a “Jarome Who?” headline he spent the bulk of his NHL career answering as the greatest Flame of all time.
However, it didn’t come easy or right away for Iginla, who reflected Monday on a time early in his career when he wasn’t sure the Flames would stick with him much longer.
“I think confidence is tough early – it was for me. I was in awe,” he said.
“I had to come in and learn from guys like Theo (Fleury) on how to compete harder. It was tough confidence–wise the first three years and thankfully the Flames stuck with me. I had a tough second year (13 goals) and I remember thinking in my third year, ‘thank God I made it to the NHL but maybe I won’t be a goal scorer. I’ll work on maybe a different role. But then it started clicking.”
Up until Year 5 in Calgary he wasn’t even the best No. 12 in franchise lore, thanks to several stunning years by Hakan Loob before him.
All that changed one fateful summer night when Iginla received the ultimate confidence boost by way of a late training camp fill-in invite to Wayne Gretzky’s 2002 Olympic Team training camp in Calgary.
Or was it a prank?
“I thought it was a joke, honestly. I thought it was (Flames captain) Todd Simpson playing a joke on me to come to the Saddledome with my equipment,” beamed Iginla, who had watched highlights of the first day of camp on TV, when it was mentioned Simon Gagne had an injury.
“I thought they were really just inviting me because I was close by. I was so nervous. The puck and stick didn’t feel the same, but it was awesome because I could hold my own. I wasn’t great, but I could hold my own and it was such a confidence booster going into that season. That was probably the biggest breakthrough mentally for me.”
That year he got off to a brilliant start, eventually winning the scoring title, scoring 52 goals and 96 points, finishing second in the Hart Trophy vote and scoring two goals in the Olympic gold-medal game.
He’d become a superstar, known league-wide simply as Iggy – a name Sidney Crosby would scream out eight years later, mere seconds before converting a pass in overtime to score the Golden Goal.
The franchise leader in almost every imaginable offensive category, Iginla went on to be the 21st player to score 500 goals with one club – as star-studded a list of Hall of Famers as you could possibly imagine.
He was the captain, the face of the franchise, and, as Flames president Ken King said to open the presser, “the epitome of our culture.”
His endless community work included donating thousands of dollars for every goal he scored for KidSport Calgary, an organization the likes of which allowed him to start playing as a child whose parents divorced early and counted on grandparents to cart him to games.
Asked on the eve of his storied promotion from Kamloops to the Flames if he’d thought about how he might spend some of the millions of dollars he’d soon start making, he famously insisted he’d pay for his mother to go back to school to finish a degree so she could pursue her dream of being a music teacher.
True to his word, he did, and she did.
That’s the kind of person Iginla is and always has been – a first-class individual whose genuine smile and humility in interviews betrayed a ferocity on the ice that made him so much more than just a 600-goal scorer.
A photo of him following a fight with Brendan Shanahan in 2001 shows half of Iginla’s face and a good portion of his previously-white jersey covered in blood.
This pic hangs in my office of Jarome Iginla after a great fight with Brendan Shanahan in 2001. Iginla told me afterwards it was an honour to fight one of his heroes. Shanahan’s response: “The honour was mine. He’s gonna be one of the game’s top power forwards.” #passingthetorch pic.twitter.com/4k0ihrLC1L
— Eric Francis (@EricFrancis) July 30, 2018
Fact was, the 23-year-old Iginla won the tussle with one of the game’s pre-eminent power forwards and said after the game he was honoured to have fought someone he so dearly looked up to.
When told of the comments, Shanahan was taken aback.
“The honour was mine,” said Shanahan, who played the same type of game Iginla became famous for.
“He’s gonna be one of the game’s top power forwards.”
A pugilistic passing of the torch.
Turns out he may end up being remembered as one of the game’s last power forwards given the way the game has changed.
Even his last appearance at the Dome, at age 39 as a member of the Los Angeles Kings, was a reminder of that as Iginla scored the game-winner and also dropped the gloves with the Flames’ toughest player, Deryk Engelland.
Earlier that year, the 6-foot-1, 210-pound fitness freak rounded out a fight card of 75 NHL punch-ups with battles against heavyweights Tom Wilson, Cody McLeod and Patrick Maroon.
Yet, there was Iginla on Monday, thanking the enforcers he played alongside who made life so much easier for the scorers. He did both.
His most famous scrap may still have been his Game 3 fight with Vincent Lecavalier in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, where Iginla teamed up with Miikka Kiprusoff to carry one of the most improbable Cup finalists on their backs.
Iginla’s eyes lit up when discussing how the 2004 Cup run, which fell one game short, was still perhaps the highlight in a career that featured two Memorial Cups, two Olympic golds, gold at the junior and world championships, two Rocket Richard trophies and a Lester B. Pearson Award as the game’s top player as voted on by his peers.
“It still stings a bit, to be honest,” he admitted of the Game 7 loss.
Few in town would disagree.
Legendary Flames play-by-play man Peter Maher presided over the hour-long ceremony Monday, which never would have happened had the Flames not convinced Iginla that he deserved a first-class sendoff.
He was otherwise poised, in collaboration with agent Don Meehan, to send out a press release a few weeks back announcing he was through.
Instead, the man who played for four other teams in pursuit of his Cup dreams, returned “home” with his three young kids and wife for a crowd of 200 invite-only attendees who bookended his 18-minute speech with standing ovations.
With Flames owners looking on in a Saddleome adorned from top to bottom with photos saluting Iginla, two of his dearest teammates, Martin Gelinas and Craig Conroy, spoke of a man they credited with the team’s success in 2004 and beyond.
“One thing he could always do was elevate his game – when we needed something to be done he’d do it, be it a fight, a big hit or a goal,” said Conroy, a longtime linemate and close pal.
“For three or four years I don’t think there was a better player in the NHL. You think he’s going to play forever, but he’s human like the rest of us and now he’s hobbling around with a new hip.”
A hip injury prevented Iginla from vying for another NHL job last year, leading to a decision with his family to stay in Boston where his transition includes a heavy coaching schedule for his three kids who are all elite hockey players.
The Flames said Iginla will return later this year for a ceremonial induction of some sorts, but that announcement was for another day.
Iginla wouldn’t rule out a return to the game as a front office type down the road, but for now admitted his foreseeable future is as a full-time husband and dad.
“Thank you mom and dad and my late grandparents – you were so instrumental in giving me a love for sports and competing,” said Iginla, as he concluded his speech.
“You always loved and encouraged me and never told me I played a bad game and I appreciated that.
“To my kids, I know you’d like me to play forever, but I look forward to being home and coaching you and many nights of Fortnite… in moderation though.”