The radio talk shows were all about the captain. The local sporting-goods stores were all about selling the captain’s jersey, or at least trying to keep up with heated demands. At the Scotiabank Saddledome, where he had played for 16 seasons, a standing room only media crowd listened to his every word, then applauded when he finished.
It was Jarome Iginla doing what he has always done, saying all the right things, being the right guy. Only now he belongs not to the Calgary Flames but to the Pittsburgh Penguins and their rejuvenated run for the Stanley Cup. It’s going to take a little while for NHL observers to get used to that. It’s going to take Flames fans longer.
Although Wednesday’s trade of Iginla came as no surprise – only the destination was a twist – it was a moment to pause and reflect on how much Iginla and his adopted city had become intertwined.
The 35-year-old Albertan born on Canada Day was as much a part of Calgary as Rocky Mountain vistas, the Stampede rodeo and the downtown Red Mile district he and his teammates lit up with their 2004 pursuit of the Cup.
Iginla was 18 when he played his first NHL game here and he grew up in a hurry.
On the ice, he became the captain, scored 525 goals and 1,095 points, won awards, represented his country internationally and won a pair of Olympic gold medals, in 2002 and 2010. When you heard his name, you automatically thought of hockey and Calgary.
Off the ice, he was just as proficient. He raised money for numerous charities, donated more than $700,000 to Kids Sport on a local and national level. He ran a hockey school for underprivileged kids and married his high-school sweetheart, Kara. They bought a home in Calgary and have three children. All in all, he was well paid, well spoken, highly esteemed.
“It’s a good-sized city but it still feels small,” he said of his affinity for Calgary. “The city has a great balance of passion for hockey and knowledge of hockey, but it’s not over the top. They’re not happy when we’re out of the playoffs. I think the scrutiny has been fair.”
The scrutiny had begun to ramp over the years as the Flames failed to reach the playoffs. There was debate among team officials over what to do with Iginla. The owners, especially their majority boss, Murray Edwards, saw him as the franchise figure that sold tickets and jerseys and gave the Flames instant recognition. The hockey side saw Iginla as a diminishing asset. Better to trade him while his value was high.
The owners decided it would have to be the player’s call. If he wanted to go elsewhere to chase a Stanley Cup, the one thing he has yet to win in his career, then the Flames would oblige. But he would have to ask so that the team wasn’t buried under an angry backlash from its supporters.
As this season unravelled, Iginla agreed to waive his no-movement clause and accept a trade. He supplied a short list of teams he was willing to join. The Penguins were on the list. Hockey commentators were quick to note the striking similarities to the story of former Boston Bruins defenceman Ray Bourque. He wanted to win so badly, he approved a trade to the Colorado Avalanche and got his Stanley Cup. Fans of the Bruins accepted that and even cheered for Bourque.
Iginla knows there are Flames fans willing to do the same for him.
“I wish we had more success over the last few years,” he said. “I know we didn’t get it right, but I know it wasn’t because of a lack of effort. I can appreciate the fans who say they hope I win. I hope I win, too.”
In the Flames’ dressing room, where Iginla’s locker had already been cleared out and vacant, Iginla’s former teammates contemplated life without him and what he had meant to them.
“There’s no downplaying the significance and presence he’s had in this room, this organization, this city,” forward Mike Cammalleri said. “If I had to sum up Jarome’s legacy: an ultimate competitor and a great person.”
As much a part of Calgary as the team he played for. Even in a Penguins jersey, Iginla will always have that connection.