Growing up in St. Albert, Alta., Jarome Iginla's hero was Mark Messier, a future Hall of Famer who played two decades in the NHL, the first with the Edmonton Oilers and most of the second with the New York Rangers. Anybody who watched Messier's career from start to finish saw a noticeable change right around the age of 33, which was also when he won the last of his six Stanley Cups, playing for Mike Keenan in New York, a championship that ended a 54-year drought.
Messier was still a valued leader, still a consistent scorer, but he wasn't the bone-rattling power forward of his 20s. When he threw the body - or picked a fight - he did it more judiciously, knowing that he couldn't play with the same reckless abandon he did in his 20s, or he'd risk spending the vast majority of the season on the injury list.
Age does that to hockey players in the same way it does it to the population at large - it forces you to adapt to your circumstances and your surroundings. The goal is always to be as good as you can be at any juncture in your career, or your life, and it is an especially difficult line to straddle for an NHL power forward. Think of everyone from Kevin Stevens and Rick Tocchet to Cam Neely and Brendan Shanahan. Once in their 30s, it was impossible to play the same kamikaze style they did in their younger days; their bodies just wouldn't let them.
So back to Iginla. He is 33. He is still the fittest player on the Calgary Flames. But no, he is not the same physical force that he was a decade ago, not as engaged in the corners and not as apt to drive hard to the front of the net. Anyone who thinks he can be - or should be - playing the same way isn't paying attention to the way of the NHL world.
Lately, there has been a lot of conjecture about Iginla's relationship with coach Brent Sutter, which was brought on by Sutter's frequent assertions that the Flames' best players weren't doing enough to contribute to the overall cause. It's true that Iginla wasn't all that effective this October. He wasn't all that effective last October either. November - last year anyway - was a different story; he was the NHL's player of the month. So it doesn't make much sense to pass judgment on Iginla until he gets into the rhythm of the season.
In theory, if anybody should know the toll a pay-the-physical-price style of play can take on a player, it is the Sutter clan, six of whom played in the NHL. They are all individuals, with their own personalities, but if they shared a quality, it was the willingness to go to the tough areas of the ice in their primes. Another commonality: It cost them physically.
Darryl, the Flames general manager, was done at 29. For Brian, who coached Iginla for a couple of years at the start of his career, the end came at 32. For Duane, it was 30. Brent made it to 36, but in three of his final four seasons, he played in just 47, 39 and 52 games respectively.
Iginla now has 13 seasons and 1,035 games under his belt. Physically, he has been extremely durable, so his goal of playing until age 40 seems eminently reachable. Like Messier, Iginla brings elements to a team's game that go beyond goals or hits.
But it would be a mistake to watch Iginla play now and wonder why he isn't the 25-year-old version of himself any more. Time stands still for no man - and that is especially true for any man involved in the daily grind of professional sport.
Publicly, Iginla says he doesn't want a change of scenery, and is happy trying to win in Calgary. When he signed his last contract - for five years and $7-million (U.S.) a season - he received a no-trade clause as a sign of faith, that the Flames wanted him here for the duration of his deal and presumably the rest of his career.
Is that changing? Or if it isn't yet, will it soon? Only Iginla knows for sure. But you can be sure that if the Flames ever put his rights in play, there would be a long line of suitors lining up to make a bid, even if he never contends for another Rocket Richard trophy for the rest of his career. That part of the Iginla equation hasn't changed. Probably won't for a good long time either.