Even if it is the holiday season, and he is going home for the holidays in a way, Jarome Iginla will tell you: He isn’t an overly sentimental sort.
As a result, he likely won’t be shedding tears on Tuesday night when the popular former member of the Flames makes his much anticipated return to Calgary as a member of the Boston Bruins. “Although,” says Iginla, with his familiar laugh echoing over the long-distance telephone line, “I guess you never know.”
Hard on the heels of Daniel Alfredsson’s return to Ottawa and Vincent Lecavalier’s return to Tampa, Iginla is now on deck in the NHL’s unofficial homecoming month.
This will be his first appearance in Calgary, where he played for 16 years, since leaving last spring in a trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins. From Calgary, the Bruins’ trip will take also Iginla to Edmonton, his hometown, and then finishes with a game against the Vancouver Canucks, probably Calgary’s No.1 rival during all the years Iginla wore a Flames’ jersey.
So yes, this is a big deal. But it’s one he intends to enjoy rather than dread. And with luck, people will be standing and cheering at the Scotiabank Saddledome to acknowledge all he did for the franchise – rather than booing because he is now part of the opposition.
“All the years, all the different things you’re familiar with, the team around the team, the city, it does feel like a homecoming,” Iginla said in an interview.
“It’s something – I knew it would be a little bit different. It’s something – I don’t know what to expect, but I kind of like surprises. I’m just going to try and enjoy it. I’m not extremely sentimental or emotional, but I expect it’ll be neat. It’s so familiar, the whole area – playing against Calgary, against Edmonton, the places where I grew up, the teams you played against for so long on a regular basis. So it is cool and I am looking forward to it.”
With apologies to Lanny McDonald and to Theo Fleury, Iginla is probably the most popular player in Flames’ history. He twice won the Rocket Richard trophy as the NHL’s goal-scoring leader, tied for the 2002 Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP and led the Flames to the 2004 Stanley Cup final, which they lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Last spring, when the Flames determined that they needed to rebuild a team that was about to miss the playoffs again, they asked Iginla to provide them with a list of teams that he would consider joining in trade. Iginla gave them four options, but ultimately really only wanted to go one place – Pittsburgh, where the Flames eventually dealt him, after negotiations with the Bruins were virtually done. The fact that Iginla ended up in Boston as a free agent last summer represents one of those delicious never-say-never moments that crops up occasionally in professional sport.
The adjustment on the ice has been reasonably smooth too, Iginla’s goal-scoring struggles (just five in his first 29 games) notwithstanding. His line – with David Krejci and Milan Lucic – has the capacity to be one of the tops in the league. Iginla and Lucic are both strong physical players and Krejci is a creative playmaker in the middle. Once they have the puck in the zone, they don’t surrender it easily.
“The numbers, as far as goals go, I was planning to have a few more at this point,” Iginla said. “But I feel good. I feel as a line, overall, for the year, we’ve been pretty solid. I think it’s coming. I honestly think I will score goals again and score them in bunches and help out in that area. For whatever reason, I’ve missed some good chances and then you start thinking about it too much and all that.
“But it hasn’t been as hard as some other droughts because we’re winning. Honestly, they’re a lot harder to take when you’re losing games and when you’re losing them by one goal. It’s been nice in that we’re finding ways to win. As a line, we’ve scored a decent amount of goals. I just don’t happen to be in on a lot of them.”
At this stage of his career, on a one-year contract, winning a Stanley Cup championship is the most important thing for Iginla, 36.
“You always want to win when you play, but as you get older and you haven’t won, the feeling and the hunger just grows. I realize I’m not going to be playing forever, but it’s been neat, it’s been good. We go into games, and they’re all important, but it’s a different mindset. There is that confidence and the roll we’ve been able to get on early, so that every game isn’t about survival.”
Every game, almost from the start of the season, was about survival those last few years in Calgary.
“You’d look at the standings and you’re on the cusp and you’re always playing four-point games and what they mean in terms of trying to make the playoffs. I’d been in that type of mindset for so many years – and that’s not all negative. It’s fun to have every game mean so much, but it’s a lot more fun when those are meaningful games and you’re winning a lot of them. You like that challenge, but you like when the challenge goes well too, if you know what I mean.”
Off the ice, Iginla says he settling into Boston nicely. The family rented a place downtown, not right next to the rink, but without traffic, he says it’s fewer than 10 minutes to get there. With traffic, it probably takes 15 to 20 minutes, so it’s pretty close. The practice rink is about 30 minutes.
For his three children, Jade, Tij and Joe, the rapid succession of moves has been an adventure, for his wife Kara, the stress has been a little greater.
“The kids, they think it’s been awesome,” Iginla said. “They really liked Calgary. They loved their old school and their old hockey and baseball teams, but they came here and they’re thrilled. The school’s great and they really like their new team, so it’s been just like an adventure. It’s a little more of an adjustment for my wife. She’s never moved either. She was born in Edmonton and was in Calgary for a long time. As players, we have a built-in [support system]. We go to work and we have a new group of friends. It’s a little harder for her, but she’s doing well and getting used to it.”
Iginla has been through a minor version of this already – returning to Pittsburgh to play the Penguins. Even though he only played 28 games there in total, regular season and playoff, he found that unexpectedly difficult.
The challenge in Calgary will be dealing with all the distractions associated with the home-coming – the well-wishers, all the people who will a tiny fraction of his time. Cumulatively, it all adds up – and can be overwhelming. And then at some point, the puck will drop and focus will be an imperative.
“My mom’s going to be there, my dad’s going to be there. It’ll be special for them too. We’re all getting older. The time has flown by. All the different memories – my first game in Calgary, I got to play centre with Theo Fleury and German Titov. The rink and the arena hold a lot of great memories for me and my family, but I want to play well too.”
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