Jarome Iginla was forced early in his hockey-playing life to confront the fact that things were just going to be different for him. He’s relayed the story several times: Other kids were always quick to tell him there were no black players in the NHL. They were wrong, of course, and the young Iginla assuredly countered with several examples: Grant Fuhr, Claude Vilgrain, Tony McKegney. Their names carried power for Iginla, as well as proof that his dreams could become reality.
Iginla was born in Edmonton to a black Nigerian father and a white American mother. He eventually grew to become an Art Ross winner, a revered captain and a six-time all-star. He was the most prominent black hockey player of his generation and one of the most prominent black athletes in Canadian history.
Craig Conroy played with Iginla for parts of nine seasons with the Calgary Flames and had a front-row seat during the peak of No. 12’s career. The teammates developed a close friendship, sharing many hours, meals, plane rides and private conversations. We caught up with Conroy, now an assistant general manager with the Flames, to discuss his friend’s life and impact.
Sportsnet: Jarome Iginla was the most prominent black player in the NHL when you played with him. When you guys were in Calgary, or on the road, what kind of responsibility came with that?
Conroy: He always set the tone for the whole team. He always went above and beyond, outside the rink, more than any player I have ever seen. If we walked out of the hotel in Toronto — and there’s a lot of people in Toronto — there might be 100 to 150 people and he would sign [autographs] for everybody. It used to drive the coaches crazy because they knew if there were 20 kids out there, Jarome was going to do it. He always took time if people wanted to talk to him. That’s one thing about Jarome: He’s so respectful, and if people would say, “You’re my favourite player,” he would always stop and talk. He’s a true ambassador for the sport.
At the  Olympics, when he saw Canadian [fans] down in Salt Lake City and they didn’t have hotels and tickets to the game, he made sure to try and help them, behind the scenes. He would never say anything like that [publicly], but that’s the type of person he was. As hard a competitor and as tough as he was on the ice, off the ice he was always in the spotlight, but he always carried himself with the dignity that his parents instilled in him.
You couldn’t have a better leader for your team. I think he brought more and more [fans] into the game. It just wasn’t the same hockey people. He kind of diversified everything that he did and he was proud of that.
Do you recall the types of conversations fans who were people of colour would have with him?
He said, “Hey, wherever you come from, whatever you do in this life, you have to have dreams and you have to work hard and believe you can do it and you can succeed.” No matter race; no matter anything. He always had that positive message: Don’t let there be any barriers for you. That’s the No. 1 thing.
You said in your speech at his retirement announcement that Iginla was very involved in the community. Do you think his background played a role in the commitment level he had for that?
He always took pride in his background. He wanted to make a statement. When he saw Willie O’Ree, he would say, “Hey, look how much he’s done for me. I’m going to do as much for the next person.” He was about paying it forward. I do think that was part of it. Deep down, though, he would have done that no matter what. He was that type of person. But I do think he felt that responsibility. At the time, there were [other black] players, but he was the most high-profile guy in the league and he took pride in that. He wanted to be that guy. He never shied away from it and that’s what made him so special.
It comes from his family and upbringing — his grandparents, especially. You would see when he was with his family, just the respect that, I think, they instilled in him. How to be a good person, how to be humble, respectful, hardworking and that really comes from his parents and his grandparents. He would be the first to give them credit because they brought him up right. He took pride in that. I don’t think he ever wanted to let them down or embarrass them.
It wasn’t like he would turn it on — Jarome was a true gentleman. Until he put on the equipment. Then, he was a true, fierce competitor. He did everything the right way. He always lived a respectful life and that started right from the time he woke up, driving to the rink and then when he went home. He never deviated from that.
In your time with Iginla, did the topic of race ever come up in closed-door conversations?
It’s funny because on the ice, with him being the competitor he is, I was always wondering [if he heard racial taunts]. I never really heard anything when I was out there playing right next to him. I asked him once, “Does anything ever come up as far as race?” He said, “Guys at the NHL level maybe did that before, Craig, but now everything has been changing.” It really wasn’t an issue for him. He would say, “I would tell you if they said something.” It got heated a lot, too, though. He trash-talked with the best of them. But I never saw that line crossed or heard it on my own.
Do you think he had more on his shoulders than other captains you’ve seen in the NHL?
I don’t know if race played a factor in it, but yes, definitely being in a Canadian market with the pressures that go along with it. I was the [Flames] captain prior [to Iginla] and there’s a lot. For him, being the best player with everything that goes along with it, he had the pressure, but he loved that pressure. That’s what made him a special player. He wanted more pressure. In the last minutes of the game, he wanted to be the guy to score the goal. He wanted to always be in that position. He wouldn’t want it another way. He doesn’t want it to be easy. He wanted it to be the hard way. It all started with him and finished with him, as far as that team went. He definitely had lots of pressure on him by being the star, being young and being on that team.
It wasn’t always about race. But that was part of who he was. He knew that.