Without question, one of the best stories of this young NHL season has to be the play of the Calgary Flames. They’ve put forth a far more entertaining style of hockey this year than they have at any point in the past three. They’ve done it with young players, energy and attitude. And they’ve done it in the shadow of trading a legend.
For more than 17 years Jarome Iginla was the face of the franchise in Calgary. He carried a once-forlorn team on his back through good and bad, playoffs and despair. For fans under 30, he was the Flames. And the respect he got reflected that. Not just from fans, but from the management and ownership of the team.
He was untouchable. He signed a contract that reflected that. It would be Iginla’s decision when to go and where to go. It was the ultimate respect.
In fact, even to this day, Iginla has so much respect inside and outside the organization, no one will comment on the fact that this team is better today without him. No one will say, on or off the record, that Jarome had become a major stumbling block to this team returning to respectability and the Stanley Cup playoffs.
His image, his aura, in Southern Alberta remains pretty well intact, even though it's quite apparent that the job of rebuilding has become much easier without him there. There had been calls for at least three seasons to start the re-build in Calgary, and for the removal of the Flames' captain from the equation, but the team on every level feared the backlash of the fans. The paying public loved and still love Iginla. But the reality of life in the NHL made his trade inevitable.
Iginla was not going to change his style. It had worked in scoring goals well over 500 times. It had worked through at least four GMs and 10 coaches. Jarome had become the constant.
But time and a physical style took its toll on Iginla to the point that some would say he was no longer carrying the Flames-they were carrying him. But his stature never changed. His respect in the community prevailed. He was still untouchable. And despite pleadings from many, ownership would not even consider moving a living legend. And with that decision came years out of post-season play.
The reality of Iginla and the Flames is far from unique. In the NFL, the Colts did it with Peyton Manning. In the NBA the Celtics did it with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. And in Major League Baseball, the Blue Jays did it with Roy Halladay. It's life in professional sports. It just seems to be a little harder when it hits so close to home for Calgarians.
Nor should you consider this to be anti-Iginla. He loved Calgary. He wanted to win again in Calgary. And it was going to be his decision.
Fast forward to March of 2013. Another season without hope in Calgary. And finally the realization on both sides that something had to be done. Iginla wanted his name on the Cup, just as much as the Flames wanted the re-build.
With the legend's shadow now removed (along with Jay Bouwmeester), the culture could change without insulting what Iginla had done. No player, or club employee, would have to be concerned about how this team operated previously. Bob Hartley could put line combinations together that made sense to best utilize the team's speed and youthful approach.
The pre-conceived notions that existed for the better part of two decades had disappeared. The vitality on the ice with young players like Monahan, Baertschi, Street and Brodie has re-invigorated the veterans like Stempniak and Wideman. The new captain, Mark Giordano, has already put his stamp on a team searching for a new identity, a team that has already exceeded expectations for this season-in the first month.
Where in recent years there was none, now there is hope.
And all the while, no one will speak of the culture change and link it to Iginla's departure. It's just a new mindset. A new attitude. A youth movement. A re-build. The reverence for Iginla and his place in this team's history remains high for many. He is, after all, Jarome Iginla.
As a former Olympic star, now on his second team since that faithful day last March, struggles to score his first goal of the season, everyone in Calgary should now know the re-build could have never occurred with No. 12 in the lineup. That doesn't detract from his greatness-that's just reality.