That’s how it felt the first time to Jarome Iginla. First time he pulled the Pittsburgh Penguins jersey over his head and knew there would be no ‘C’ over one of hockey’s greatest hearts, first time he skated out onto the ice of Consol Energy Center and knew, for certain, he was no longer captain of the Calgary Flames and playing in front of the familiar, almost family, crowd at Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome.
Weird is also how it felt to Ray Shero. The general manager of the Penguins had been sitting in his office late in the evening of March 27. He was flipping stations, turning from the Flames’ game against the Colorado Avalanche – where Iginla had been tellingly kept out of the lineup – and TSN, the Canadian sports network that was “confirming” that Jarome Iginla, 16 years a Calgary Flame, nine years the team captain, was now a member of the Boston Bruins.
“All I know is I was still talking to [Flames general manager] Jay Feaster,” Shero says. “I was in my office by myself watching Calgary play and I’m talking to Jay.”
Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli had also been talking and was convinced Iginla was his. Boston and Pittsburgh had been two of four teams the long-serving captain had told Feaster he would go to in a trade as Calgary sought to rebuild a foundering franchise. Boston was the presumed destination. But when the final “yes” came down to the central figure in the trade, Iginla chose Pittsburgh, in no small part as it would put him back with Sidney Crosby, the linemate he had passed to in Vancouver three years ago to give Canada its “Golden Goal” and Olympic triumph.
“We just kind of stayed in it,” Shero says. He sent a first-round 2013 draft selection and two college prospects to Calgary, Feaster sent Iginla to Pittsburgh and, next day in Boston, an angry Chiarelli told a news conference that he had “no doubt” that the deal had been done.
Iginla had been the big prize of the NHL trading deadline. He led the Flames to the Stanley Cup final in 2004; he has more than 1,100 points in 1,200-plus games; he can score, make plays and, if provoked, fight.
“I didn’t know Jarome Iginla as a person at all,” Shero says. “I did talk to a couple of guys here that had played with him and know him and asked what he was like as a teammate. It was off charts in terms of the response I got: one of the best guys in the dressing room.”
In Calgary, there had been no doubt about that. Iginla has established himself as a leader among the likes of Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Jean Béliveau – though, significantly, without a Stanley Cup to show for his dedication. He is, in fact, more comparable to the captain he is facing this series, Daniel Alfredsson of the Ottawa Senators, who has almost exactly the same career stats and is also chasing his first Stanley Cup this spring after previously coming up short in the 2007 final.
Iginla had reached iconic status in Calgary. The 35-year-old native of St. Albert, Alta., had not only led the team but often the community, a fixture in charity fundraising for diabetes and cancer research. Donating money for every goal he scored meant some $550,000 over the years to KidSportCalgary.
“It’s tough being out of the playoffs,” Iginla says, “and this last year was pretty tough because we were hoping for a lot more in Calgary. It’s hard when you see it slipping away and you know changes are going to be coming. Ultimately I knew I’d probably be moving.
“It was kind of the circumstances: Calgary was out of the playoffs and it was my last year of the contract. They were making some sort of a retooling. It’s not easy to go through it because at the time you’re not having success and you want the organization to have success. So it’s tough.
“And it’s a change. It’s the unknown. So it was a little bit unnerving, for sure. It’s also been home, grew up playing, grew up [in Alberta] outside of hockey, too, so it wasn’t the easiest thing.”
The adjustment seemed instant to others, but in reality it was not. “For the first few days,” Iginla says, “I found that I was a little bit off – just with the adjustments. And when I went on the ice, the puck didn’t feel just right.
“I was probably just a little bit anxious. But the guys were great, guys welcomed all of us – we had quite a few additions at the deadline, four of us [Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen] – and they were great to us. You didn’t feel like you had to be quiet or anything. They welcomed us in.”
There were, however, internal adjustments he had to make himself. First and foremost was accepting that the ‘C’ he so respected was now worn by Crosby. He recalls the very first day he dressed as a Penguin. Tanner Glass, who has the stall next to him in the home dressing room, turned to him as Iginla was about to pull the new jersey over his head and said, “Isn’t that kind of weird?”
It was indeed, but that was not all that felt odd.
“I found walking out onto the ice, being at the home rink the first time, quite a different experience. You’re looking around at the crowd. You get so used to your surroundings being at home. For the first week or so I actually thought maybe the road was more comfortable because you’re in those dressing rooms that you’re usually in.”
Gradually, however, the sumptuous Penguins dressing room became familiar. He lived in a hotel and the family (he and Kara have three children) has been to visit a couple of times. The Iginla home in Calgary was put up for sale for nearly $4-million and sold quickly. Should he sign as a free agent over the summer, Pittsburgh would become home, though he admits “I don’t know anything besides where the practice rink is.”
He says it is all good now: “It’s been a change but it’s been a neat experience. I’m enjoying every moment.”
And no wonder. The Penguins, the powerhouse of the Eastern Conference, went on to finish first, giving them home-ice advantage against, first, the New York Islanders (dispatched in six games) and now the Senators. And Iginla, with two goals and 10 points heading into Friday’s Game 2 against the Senators, stood second in team scoring just behind Evgeni Malkin and just ahead of Crosby. He has played with both superstars, played both right and left wing and has been, Shero says, a perfect fit.
Sidney Crosby agrees, especially given that Iginla is a right shot and Crosby had been playing usually with left-shot players, such as Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz.
“I am really comfortable with the way he plays and know what to expect,” Crosby says. “It’s a little bit different having a right shot as you can make a lot more plays off his scoring side, probably expect the puck a little more in certain areas, which is good.”
Crosby says that Iginla’s presence has been a smooth adjustment for the team. “It’s pretty easy,” Crosby says, “a guy like that, his attitude and his experience. He made it easy. I think it says a lot when you’re able to bring that many guys in and make it feel seamless.”
As for sharing a locker room with a player who has been captain of an NHL team far longer than Crosby, the Penguins captain says there has been no issue. Iginla still carries himself like a captain and Crosby is fine with that: “When you’re a captain for that long it’s probably pretty natural.”
Iginla, he says, has the air of a captain but gives no sense of wanting the ‘C.’ They haven’t even discussed the subject of leadership.
“I don’t think that’s something that’s in his character anyway,” Crosby says. “When I look at him I think he leads by example. We talk, but it’s not about that stuff. It’s about plays and other things.”
And, should matters progress as the odds-makers predict, Jarome Iginla and his team will move on to Round 3 – perhaps against the Boston Bruins, the team he jilted at the last moment.
And that could mean “weird” all over again.