By Ryan Dixon in Calgary
By Ryan Dixon in Calgary
How a kid who grew up loving the Oilers became the beating heart of the Calgary Flames.

On Monday, Jarome Iginla officially retires as a Calgary Flame. Five years ago, his actual playing time with the team was coming to an end. Sportsnet travelled to Calgary to profile the greatest Flame of all time in those final days. The result was this story, about a man who loves to sing.

Stroll up to Scotiabank Saddledome from any angle and you’ll find that jerseys with No. 12 on the back have the place surrounded. They’re as common as the steps and doors that rim the building.

Inside the rink earlier in February 2013, one day after a former teammate of Jarome Iginla’s publicly questioned his drive, Calgary’s love affair with its captain is reaffirmed when Iginla willingly obliges a physical challenge from Dallas Stars rookie Antoine Roussel. Iginla’s frontier spirit plays well in every hockey circle, but is especially admired here in the west. The fight is relatively even until the end, when Iginla lands a couple of quick blows and falls on Roussel, prompting the fans to rise in full throat. In that moment, it’s never more evident that Iginla isn’t just theirs, he’s one of them — and letting go might not be something either side can fathom.

The idea of Iginla skating for another team is a bit like the notion of Bono fronting a band other than U2. In the 17 years since he first introduced himself to Flames players and fans, Iginla has become an icon in Calgary — and around the country — for the way he’s carried the team and himself. But reverence is no reason to ignore reality, and the facts are colder than an Alberta clipper. The Flames have been fumbling for years, and Iginla turns 36 on July 1, the same day he’s eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. It’s a difficult circumstance for a deeply devoted player and person, and for a franchise that fully understands and appreciates his standing in the dressing room and city. But strip the situation to its bare bones and it becomes increasingly clear that for Iginla to get a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup he’s never laid hands on, and for the Flames to turn the corner on a middling era, the time has come for Calgary and its beloved hero to part ways.

That Calgary’s adored franchise face grew up a huge Oilers fan just outside Edmonton has always been a fun bit of Alberta irony. Adekunle Iginla immigrated to Canada from Nigeria in the mid-1970s and, after spending a year in Toronto, moved west to pursue higher education. He eventually became a lawyer and changed his name to Elvis to save Canucks the trouble of mangling introductions. He met and married Susan Schuchard, who moved to Canada from Oregon when she was 11-years old. She gave birth to Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla in 1977. Elvis and Susan divorced a couple years later and while Iginla was raised by his mom with great support from her parents, Rick and Frances, he also maintained a close relationship with his dad that endures to this day. Long before Iginla would convert most of his family and friends from Oilers fans to Calgary backers, Elvis was already on board with the “C of Red.” “It’s a silly thing, but I like cheering for the underdog,” Elvis says of the Calgary teams that were often bested by the dynastic ’80s Oilers his son loved.

“After signing my first contract they said, ‘OK, you’re going to play today.’ I didn’t even have a chance to get nervous.”

Growing up, Iginla says, race had very little impact on his experience, but being a black kid with the stated goal of blossoming into an NHL star was an easy way to uncover his friends’ inner skeptics. “It wasn’t malicious, but you’d hear, ‘What are your chances? There aren’t any black players in the NHL,’” Iginla says. When he’d cite the Oilers’ Grant Fuhr as evidence it could be done, his friends would boot it aside as fast as Fuhr kicked out pucks, drawing a distinction between black skaters and savers. So, to support his dream, Iginla went to work, scouring rosters to find players who looked like him. He turned up Tony McKegney, who played nearly 1,000 NHL games, and more obscure black players like Claude Vilgrain and Dale Craigwell, who never even made it to 100. “It was important for me to follow as many black players as I could to be able to have a comeback,” he says.

Not that hockey was his singular focus. Iginla was a terrific baseball player who loved the outdoors and was also influenced by having a music teacher for a grandmother. “He loves to sing,” says Elvis.

That might not be captured by cameras, but there’s endless footage of Iginla’s endearing half grin. The smile is genuinely kind, say those who know him, but also contains a touch of shyness, inherited from his dad. Maybe that’s what first caught the eye of his wife, Kara, who’s been part of his life since Grade 7. “We’ve broken up a few times over the years, but we just couldn’t stay apart,” Kara said in 2008. “We’ve been together forever. He’s the same person.”

Family has always been a huge priority for Iginla, whether it was recognizing the role his late grandfather played in his life by giving him one of his two Memorial Cup rings, helping his mother pursue a teaching career at the University of Alberta or simply spending quality time with Kara and their three young kids — two boys and a girl — during quieter summer months in British Columbia’s Okanagan Lake region. According to his father, faith is also a significant part of Iginla’s life. “He’s a very thoughtful guy, very religious fellow,” says Elvis. “Not in the dogmatic sense, but he takes it seriously. He loves God, he believes in God and he tries to put himself in situations whereby your conscience isn’t judging you.”

Iginla’s intense demeanour is a hallmark of his character, but he’s by no means a person who retreats from the lighter side of life. “When the guys wanted to do something, he was always right in the mix,” says Nolan Baumgartner, who briefly billeted with Iginla during their time with the Kamloops Blazers in the mid-1990s. “He realizes the importance of that.”

Connecting with teammates is something Iginla has done from Day 1 in Calgary, first with his friendly personality, then with his play. The morning after his Blazers were bounced from the Western Hockey League playoffs in April 1996, Iginla flew to Calgary, where the Flames were hosting Game 3 of a first-round series they trailed 2-0 to the powerhouse Chicago Blackhawks. It was an afternoon affair and Iginla assumed he would be taking it in from the press box. Before doing anything, Iginla had to put pen to paper on his first NHL contract, which had been agreed upon, but not yet signed. Then came the twist. “After signing it they said, ‘OK, you’re going to play,’” he recalls. “I didn’t even have a chance to get nervous. I went down to the room, guys are half dressed, I was going around, shaking hands being like, ‘Hey guys, nice to meet you,’ and it might have been Theo [Fleury] who said, ‘Just get dressed. We’ve got a game here.’”

Even at 18, Iginla’s impact on the team was significant. He registered an assist in his debut, then scored in Game 4, which, sadly for Calgary, came in a loss that marked the end of the season. Still, the star winger who had to tell Iginla to quit being friendly and get his equipment on had a different message for Flames GM Al Coates after skating on a line with him. “Fleury came to me and said, ‘That kid can play with me any time,’” Coates says.

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But that Calgary club, like the outfits Iginla has toiled on the past few years, was trending the wrong way. The four games against Chicago represented the last time southern Alberta saw playoff hockey for eight years. Presently, the Flames are on a three-year post-season hiatus and a middling start to the 2013 campaign offered little hope a significant change in direction is imminent. Set that against the backdrop of Iginla having another of his trademark slow starts and it’s in no way surprising that trade speculation has flared up again. Rhett Warrener, Iginla’s teammate for four years in Calgary, really chummed the waters with his on-air analysis that he thought Iginla looked disengaged in a shootout loss against Minnesota, a game that preceded his spirited bout with Roussel by a couple days.

“I don’t think the fire has gone out; I think frustration has set in,” says Warrener in a phone conversation on the morning of Calgary’s game with Dallas. “He’s been everything for this team and — only he can answer this — but I don’t know if he truly believes this team is at the level he would like to see it at.”

Neither side is going to openly state their intentions and it’s possible that Iginla wants nothing more than to finish his career as a Flame, and that Calgary — which, led by GM Jay Feaster, has shown no interest in a tear-it-down rebuild despite poor results — wants nothing more than to accommodate that. Or maybe not. “I don’t think he’d ever say, ‘Trade me,’ but that doesn’t mean he’s not thinking it,” says Warrener. “And same thing with the team. If they haven’t thought about it or talked about it, are they doing Flames fans a disservice by not considering it?”

“He has the one thing most teams lack: Character.”

The best reason to contemplate it, of course, is the hope that you can once again strike gold when moving a huge organizational chip. His advanced age and expiring contract mean Calgary can’t leverage quite the same return it could have a couple years ago, but Iginla is known for keeping himself in peak condition and, as recently as 2010-11, scored 43 goals on a 17th-overall team. Consider that last summer Iginla’s former Kamloops teammate Shane Doan drummed up huge interest on the open market, with the Buffalo Sabres reportedly prepared to offer four years at more than $7 million per season for a player who is one year older than Iginla, plays a similarly tough game, and possesses less scoring touch. In a sport obsessed with the value of intangibles, Iginla scores off the charts. “He has the one thing most teams lack,” an NHL scout says of Iginla. “Character.” And if Iginla were to land in a situation where he didn’t have to be the leading man, the extra breathing room could be refreshing. “You have to wonder if not being the centre of attention might help him out,” Warrener says.

The deal that brought Iginla to Calgary from Dallas, struck just before the start of the 1996 World Junior Championship, was one of the most mutually beneficial transactions in NHL history. Joe Nieuwendyk, who couldn’t agree on a new contract with Calgary, was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP when Dallas won the 1999 Stanley Cup. Iginla, selected 11th overall by Dallas in 1995, is Calgary’s all-time franchise leader in games played, goals and points. If Iginla doesn’t lead the Flames in scoring this year, it will be the first time that’s happened since Valeri Bure paced the team in 1999-2000.

Iginla was named team captain before the 2003-04 campaign and if you give him credit for the lost year of 2004-05, that makes this his 10th season as designated team leader. The only players to captain a Canadian club longer than 10 seasons are George Armstrong and Mats Sundin, both with Toronto, and Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa. When Coates traded Nieuwendyk, he said management’s goal was to obtain a player who’d be contributing in Calgary long after Nieuwendyk hung up his blades. Well played. And with Iginla now skating in the final stage of his celebrated career, the sporting symmetry between his arrival and potential exit is undeniable. So, too, are the comparisons to players like Ray Bourque, Boston’s longtime rock-steady defenceman who had to move to Colorado before finally getting his hands on the Cup that eluded him for 20 seasons with the Bruins.

Baumgartner has no idea how the last chapter will play out for his old teammate, but doesn’t expect anyone would begrudge Iginla if he wanted to move on, given all he’s done for the franchise. “At this point, if he did go somewhere else, I don’t think anybody in Calgary is going to look at him as a villain or a bad person,” Baumgartner says. “He’s stuck through good and bad.”

He’s also been a huge presence in the city, winning the NHL’s 2004 King Clancy Trophy for noteworthy humanitarian contributions, which today include donating $2,000 for every goal he scores to help suit up underprivileged kids in hockey equipment and pay their league fees. Gestures like that have served to strengthen the bond between Iginla and diehard Flames fans who’d like to eschew the Bourque narrative in favour of their own template, established when Lanny McDonald, almost 25 years ago, went out on top by scoring the dagger goal against Montreal in the game that clinched Calgary’s only Cup. But the star-studded team McDonald played for and the scuffling units Iginla has been skating on don’t share many traits. “I don’t necessarily know it’s a complete mistake for Iggy to stay here,” says Warrener. “I just don’t see how it ends as positively as it has gone.”

If Iginla was moved to a team that made a Cup run, the outpouring of support would mimic what happened when the entire hockey community got behind McDonald and Bourque as they pursued their championship dreams. That includes players, too, many of whom hold Iginla in higher esteem than anyone else in the league. Last year, while still a member of the New Jersey Devils, Zach Parise lined up against Iginla one game after the latter netted his 500th career goal. “I remember telling him right before the faceoff, ‘I’m a big fan,’” says Parise, now a member of the Wild.

For Canadians, Iginla is synonymous with international excellence, having been a massive contributor to Team Canada’s biggest triumphs of the past decade-plus. Sidney Crosby famously cried “Iggy!” to call for the pass that led to his overtime winner in the gold medal game versus Team USA at the Vancouver Olympics. In 2002, when Canada ended a 50-year gold medal drought at the Games, Iginla sniped twice in the final, solidifying another win over the Americans. But his most Iginla-like performance may have come at the 1996 world juniors, just days after headlines in Calgary screamed “Jarome Who?” following the deal with Dallas. In addition to netting 12 points in six games, Iginla punctuated his performance when he set up the game-winner in the gold medal showdown by flattening Swedish defender David Halvardsson in the corner, then sending a quick pass to Daymond Langkow at the side of the net. “For a young kid to all of a sudden be traded for, you could say, ‘Mr. Calgary’ — Nieuwendyk was a huge asset for that club and Iginla was just a first-rounder for Dallas — there was a tremendous amount of pressure and it clearly didn’t affect his performance,” says Craig Mills, a member of that Canadian junior team.

Even on occasions when he wasn’t wearing a maple leaf, Iginla — born on Canada Day, no less — was, in some ways, a metaphorical flagbearer. In 2004, a couple of years after he’d established himself as an elite-level star by winning the Rocket Richard and Art Ross trophies, Iginla went to a whole other stratosphere when he, along with sublime puckstopper Miikka Kiprusoff, spearheaded the push of a scrappy Flames team to within one win of the Cup, losing the seventh game of the final 2-1 to Tampa Bay. Iginla was unstoppable that spring, scoring through sheer force of will and registering a Gordie Howe hat trick in Game 3 versus Tampa, when he famously dropped the gloves with Vincent Lecavalier in a victory at the Saddledome. “He played some of the best hockey I’ve ever seen a forward play,” says Warrener, a sturdy defenceman on that squad.

It was also the first time Canadians had seen one of their clubs advance to the final in over a decade, and in an era when small-market teams north of the 49th were regularly losing talent to American powerhouses in Dallas, Colorado and Detroit, that was a really big deal. Just like it would be, albeit for different reasons, if Iginla were to get another shot at glory. “I’d be cheering,” says Warrener.

So would a lot of people. But they likely won’t get that chance unless Iginla once again finds himself shaking hands with a bunch of new teammates.

Photo Credits

Gerry Thomas/NHLI/Getty Images (3); Mike Sturk/REUTERS; Jeff McIntosh/CP.