Flames settle longtime jersey debate with plans to honour Iginla

Calgary Flames great Jarome Iginla joined Ryan Leslie to talk about his transition into "official" retirement, how it feels to watch his Flames, and the time he almost fought friend Mark Giordano.

CALGARY — Jarome Iginla’s No. 12 jersey is officially headed to the rafters of the Saddledome.

As it should.

Not only does news of the Mar. 2 ceremony cap the career of the organization’s greatest player, it silences the debate over how the longtime captain should be feted for 16 years of unmatched service as a Flame.

Outside of Calgary, few can think of any other way the Flames would dare immortalize the ever-smiling power forward.

However, when Iginla made his retirement official last summer it immediately sparked local concern he’d be inducted into the club’s Forever A Flame program.

Such was the honour bestowed upon Al MacInnis seven years ago when the club unveiled a new ‘distinction and program that will be followed by others in the future.’

As part of the controversial program, a banner with Macinnis’ name was hoisted to the roof of the Dome in a stirring pre-game ceremony in which the legendary defenceman’s friends, family and teammates took part.

A Forever A Flame concourse display recognizing past and future honourees was also unveiled.

The evening was preceded by furious reactions from alumni, upset the Hall of Famer was denied the age-old tradition of having his number retired — an honour players saw as the ultimate salute.

Anything less, some figured, was insulting. A second-tier accolade.

Previously, Lanny McDonald’s No. 9 was retired, as was Mike Vernon’s No. 30.

It was the hockey way for both members of the team’s 1989 Stanley Cup winner.

Teammates — and many fans — wanted to know how MacInnis, who led the franchise in games played (803) and many offensive categories before Iginla rolled around, could be denied such prestige.

The ever-classy defenceman took the high-road, saying, “The Forever A Flame program serves a multitude of purposes, but most importantly for me as a former player, it permits a bright young player in the future to wear my number and the tradition that accompanies it.”

Fact is, no one has worn it since 2004 when Mike Commodore played in the Stanley Cup Final as a Flame.

So why not make it official and retire it, as his play warranted?

Despite the fan reaction, the Flames stood by their new program, insisting it was the new standard for its greatest players to be recognized.

Two years later, in 2014, the Flames bestowed the Forever A Flame honour on another Hall of Famer and three-time Stanley Cup winner, Joe Nieuwendyk, who was traded after nine seasons with the Flames, landing the club Iginla.

Both Forever A Flame ceremonies included all the right sentimentality, pomp and class of a number retirement, albeit without the number. Ten players have worn Nieuwendyk’s No. 25 since he left in 1995.

Which brings us to Iginla.

For him, there could be no debate — the Flames would have to give him the ultimate salute. Otherwise, what should be the ultimate feel-good send-off for the future Hall of Famer would be marred by talk of how the Flames didn’t do it the right way.

No one has worn his number since he left in 2013.

No one ever will. No one should.

He wore it so well he made people forget it was previously worn by the magical Hakan Loob. He made it his own.

While he finished one win short of carrying the Flames to a Stanley Cup in 2004, the man posted a club record 525 goals and 1,095 points (as a Flame), won two Olympic golds, a pair of Rocket Richard trophies, the Ted Lindsay, King Clancy and Mark Messier Awards and led the team in scoring for 11 straight seasons.

Only 14 players in NHL lore scored more than the Edmonton native.

He was the class and face of the organization for 16 years.

Fitting the 41-year-old be treated as such, sparking endless love and praise from current Flames who’ve long heard or witnessed the legend of ol’ Jarome.

“It’s humbling, a huge honour, a thrill, and to be honest, a little bit surreal,” said Iginla. “I am extremely grateful to the Flames ownership and organization for bestowing this tribute on me and my family.

“I’m looking forward to it but I don’t know what to expect or how I’ll handle my emotions. I’m obviously very excited but I think now that my kids are really into hockey and the NHL that it’s going to be so neat to share it with my family. To have them there, and friends, alumni and of course with the fans will really make the day special.”

His retirement announcement last July was handled tremendously by the club and appreciated by Iginla and his family.

Make no mistake — the Flames are a first-class outfit.

Mar. 2 will be a special night for Iginla, as it will be for the fans, who clamoured online to buy tickets for the Saturday night game against Minnesota.

Where the Flames banner policy goes from here is anyone’s guess. Many fans have argued fervently in support of Theo Fleury’s No. 14 being retired. Or will he be Forever A Flame? The Flames obviously aren’t saying.

It’s early to start wondering about how the team’s current crop of stars may eventually be recognized down the road, but debates have been ongoing about the possibility of honouring players like Miikka Kiprusoff in some way.

They’d have to find him first, as the goalie hasn’t been seen publicly since his 2016 induction into the Finnish Hockey Hall of Fame. No one has heard a peep from the reclusive star since his 13-word acceptance speech.

Iginla will have plenty more to say than that. And he’ll do it in the perfect setting, before watching No. 12 rise to the saddle-shaped roof.

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