Jarome Iginla deserves better before illustrious career ends

In his 1500th NHL game, Jarome Iginla goes after Alexei Emelin after he lays a big hit on Joe Colborne late in an extremely lopsided game.

MONTREAL—This is not how we’ll remember Jarome Iginla when he finally decides to retire from a Hall of Fame NHL career.

Don’t mistake Iginla for the guy who’s stuck on three goals and three assists in 26 games this season, dwindling on the NHL’s worst team in Colorado, and playing fourth-line minutes alongside Joe Colborne and Andreas Martinsen.

He is the guy who scored at least 30 goals for 11 straight seasons; the guy who had one of the best slapshots ever taken with a composite stick; the guy who stepped up in the biggest games and seemingly played with his heart on his sleeve at all times; the guy who took on the biggest, meanest and nastiest players—and smiled as he did it.

“He’s the best power forward I ever played with,” said former teammate Craig Conroy in a phone interview with Sportsnet on Saturday.

Iginla deserved much better in his 1500th game later that evening than to be on the receiving end of the 10-1 smackdown the Montreal Canadiens gave his Avalanche team.

But file that game away with the many others that didn’t matter all that much, because when we think of Iginla we’ll always think of what he did when the chips were down.

So will the guys who know him best.

When Avalanche GM Joe Sakic is asked for his favourite memory of Iginla, he goes straight to when the two of them played on a line with Simon Gagne as members of the Canadian team that was trying to break a 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought in Salt Lake City, in 2002.

“We clicked right away,” said Sakic, who started the tournament on a line with Mario Lemieux and Paul Kariya before being switched in Game 2.

It was the line that came up with the goods in the final, with Sakic and Iginla scoring two goals apiece to help Canada beat the United States 5-2.

“It was the best game I’ve ever been a part of,” said Sakic, who won two Stanley Cups as captain of the Avalanche. “As the tournament went on we seemed to get more comfortable together as a line and [coach] Pat Quinn kept going to us and kept us together and showed that confidence to us, and that last game everything clicked for us. If there was going to be one game where you wanted it to click, that would be the game.

“What a competitor Jarome is. He’s so strong on the puck; great shot but great vision too. He could really make a good pass. You really figure somebody out when you start playing with them and you just see his tendencies, but he’s a true competitor and he did everything really, really well.”

What Iginla’s done best is score goals.

No matter whose uniform he was in—whether it was Calgary’s, Pittsburgh’s, Boston’s, Colorado’s or Canada’s—the image of him uncorking that wicked slapshot of his will be the lasting one.

But Iginla’s leadership has also been a big part of what has distinguished his career to date, and never was it more apparent than when he put the Western Conference’s sixth-seeded Calgary Flames on his back and took them to within one win of the Stanley Cup in the spring of 2004.

“In Round 1, we were on the bus from the Vancouver rink to the airport to go back to Calgary after splitting the first two games,” said Denis Gauthier, a defenceman on that Flames team. “Everyone in the back of the bus was talking about how we lost Game 1 and how things were going to get tough for us when Jarome caught everyone’s attention by saying, ‘Hey guys, nobody gave us a chance, but we won Game 2, and [Flames goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff] is better than their goalie [Dan Cloutier], this guy is better than that guy, and we can do this. And once we do it, we can go through whoever comes next.’

“He was going into detail about how we’d make our run, and he had such a convincing tone that we kinda forgot that we had no chance of winning against Vancouver. He was so positive. I don’t think we believed in how good we could be, we didn’t have a lot of skill that year. But his sense of belief carried over for all of us and we beat Vancouver in [seven] games, we beat Detroit in six, we beat San Jose in six and lost to Tampa in seven.”

And the way Iginla led on the ice over the course of that run is the stuff of legends.

In 26 games, he scored 13 goals, 22 points and finished plus-13, and every player he matched up against in each series felt his wrath.

“He fought Mattias Ohlund in the first round, fought Derian Hatcher in Detroit, he had a war with San Jose’s Scott Hannan, and he fought Vinny Lecavalier in Tampa,” said Conroy. “It was always a game where we were losing by a goal or two or the game was out of reach or we were down in the series; he did it just to give us a spark. It wasn’t calculated, but he figured it was his chance and he was going to take it right at that moment. He wouldn’t say anything, but he’d be on the bench and you’d know he wasn’t happy and next thing you know he’d just jump someone.

“He was going after the hardest guy. And they played him physical, they were hooking at the time, they were holding, and I think fighting actually gave him more room as the series rolled along, and other guys took notice too. He was like, ‘Are you next?’”

Iginla’s ferocity on the ice is the Hyde to his Jekyll off of it.

“Him and [Arizona Coyotes captain] Shane Doan are the best people I’ve ever met in hockey,” said Gauthier.

Ignila’s smile and his easy-going personality will always be a big part of his legacy.

“He’s a real fun guy and a good one to be around,” said Joe Nieuwendyk, who was traded from Calgary to Dallas in 1995 for Iginla—who had yet to make his NHL debut—and centre Corey Millen. “But when I think of his legacy, I just think he really carried on the tradition of that franchise there in Calgary. He’ll always be known as a Flame. I know he’s been in a few spots since then, but I think the city embraced him, and he did a great job representing that franchise—just like Lanny McDonald did for all those years.”

And maybe that’s where Iginla will finish his career, as a member of a Flames team that’s currently third in the Pacific Division with 34 points in 31 games.

He recently told Colorado reporter Adrian Dater that he’d consider waiving his no-move clause for a chance to play on a contending team.

“As long as he’s not playing us, I’d love to see him get a chance to win the Stanley Cup,” says Conroy, who scouts for Calgary. “I know how bad he wants it.”

That would be a much more fitting end for the player who became the 16th in NHL history to appear in 1,500 games.

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