Jarome Iginla Q&A: Looking back on my first NHL interview

calgary-flames-jarome-iginla-celebrates-a-goal

Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla celebrates a goal against the Chicago Blackhawks. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

Fifteen summers ago, when Jarome Iginla and I were both more spry, the Calgary Flames star was gracious enough to grant a hopeful hockey writer a one-on-one interview. The year was 2003, and a 26-year-old Iginla had just returned to Alberta from a weeklong Maui wedding vacation with a new bride and a new respect for surfers.

Though the right winger had already won the Art Ross Trophy (2001-02) and an Olympic gold medal (2002), unbeknownst to anyone, he was months away from leading the Flames all the way to the Stanley Cup Final and sparking Red Mile delirium.

“Jarome Iginla is training hard,” a young, fumbling, but totally clairvoyant Luke wrote then. “For since the Anaheim Mighty Ducks came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup last spring after failing to make the NHL playoffs the previous season, the long-rebuilding Calgary Flames have new hope.”

As Iginla gets set to announce his retirement, here are some excerpts from that dusty Q&A, which was written for high school students.

Thanks, Jarome, for giving a guy his first interview with a real hockey player and another reason to wear 12.

What high school did you go to?
I grew up here in St. Albert, which is a city just north of Edmonton, and I went to Grade 10 here at Paul Kane High School. But then I went to junior in the WHL, Western Hockey League, at age 16. So I left and went to finish school at Norkam High School in Kamloops for grades 11 and 12. It was tough to leave family and friends, but the hardest part was the playing and juggling the [scant] amount of sleep. We had a lot of bus trips and missed a little bit of school. We had to make that up with tutoring, as a team. I remember getting off the bus after a game the night before and driving through the night, and we literally would get home at 7:30 a.m. We’d just have time to get showered up, and then we’d have to get to school. It was hard. That was an adjustment, for sure. Then we’d have practices every day after school, and I was used to going home after school and sleeping or relaxing.

Did you have to sacrifice other sports?
I did have to sacrifice. In junior high I played team basketball and team volleyball, and it was a great time. In that area, I missed out. Hockey in Canada is pretty much all-year now, especially with practices through the week. There was definitely no time in grades 11 and 12 to do any other sports. That was one downside; I really enjoyed playing other sports. But once I left home to play hockey, it was a commitment to be the best I could be and try to make the NHL.

Who influenced you then?
Growing up, my family has always been totally supportive. My grandpa helped out a lot. My parents divorced when I was younger — I was one or two years old — so ever since I can remember, they’ve always been apart. It’s been good, but my dad was busy going to school, and my mom had to work a lot to support my sports. She went to as many games as she could — she didn’t make a lot — but both my grandparents helped me get to practice and took me to power skating right after school when my mom and dad were busy. So it was great to have somebody in the stands supporting me. What I appreciate most, looking back, is that they never judged my play. I kinda knew when I had a bad game, or the coach would let me know, but they were just there to enjoy it. Good or bad, they never had a negative thing to say.

Do any games stick out in your mind from your childhood?
Today, some of the best friends I have are people I got the chance to play with growing up in minor hockey and going to school. So we relive the junior-high basketball game that we lost by one point in the city finals, or the provincials in hockey that we won. Hockey is enjoyable to play now, and I’m very thankful to play it, but some of the best times were growing up, those road trips and the hotels in minor hockey.

As a kid, did you experience racism at the rink?
Once, I was playing and I overheard some commotion in the stands. And afterwards I heard that one of the other parents had said something [racially negative] about me, and one of our parents had went over and had a discussion with that guy, whoever had said it. Obviously, it doesn’t feel good. It’s wrong that that other parent is saying that. But it felt good to know that our fans, my friends’ parents, are sticking up for me. So there was good from it. But I never felt that I had any racial problems on my own team, or with coaching. I don’t feel like I ever missed ice time or ever got cut from a team [because I’m black]. But going to different places, there were some minor instances.

Since there are still only a few black players in the NHL, do you attract not only the Calgary Flame fan but the black fan as well?
There weren’t many black players when I was growing up, and I remember playing and looking up to the ones that were playing. Kids would say, “There aren’t any black players in the NHL.” And I would say, “Well, yeah, there are.” There was Grant Fuhr in Edmonton. I remember being a fan of Claude Vilgrain in New Jersey. Tony McKegney. And it meant a lot to me to be able to say there are, to say that it was possible. There are definitely more black players in the NHL today, and I know what it meant to me to look up and see that it was possible. So I’d love to be a role model to other young black kids. And if there’s people cheering for me, great.

What was running through your mind as you laced up your skates for that first step on NHL ice?
It was so different. My first game was a playoff game that I played with Calgary, seven or eight years ago now. We had just got eliminated [from the playoffs] in junior, and I got called up. A couple nights before, I was watching the NHL playoffs on TV, watching to see how Calgary is doing and watching Theron Fleury. They’re playing [the Blackhawks’ Chris] Chelios and Eddie Belfour. And then to be lacing up and being with these guys. In one night it changes. And now I’m shooting on Eddie Belfour, and going down on Chelios, and playing on a line with Theron Fleury — it was unbelievable. I’ll never forget that. It happened so quick. It was different; it was an adjustment my whole first year, going from guys that I’m huge fans of the year before — scouts are asking who your favourite player is, and you’re arguing with your [junior] teammates over who the best players are in the NHL. It was an adjustment to compete against them without being in awe.

Is there an image that sticks out in your mind from the Olympic gold medal game?
The final game, the whole thing. Just how loud the crowd was, how intense every shift was. We just wanted to win so bad; we were so close to that gold medal. Just the electricity in the building, it was unreal. Every emotion: from nervousness to excitement to get on the ice. Then as soon as I was on the bench, I was a fan, pulling for [Mario] Lemieux or whoever was on. Then, all of a sudden, it would be my shift again. So you gotta go as hard as you could, get off, and then I was a fan [again]. I think the best moment was the last couple minutes. The whole game, with all those emotions — the nervous excitement, the [shots that hit the] posts, things like that that went on in the game — I never had a chance to think about whether we would win or not. I didn’t want to think about that, until the final couple minutes when it was apparent we were actually going to win. Being up by a couple goals, it was a pretty cool feeling. It’s hard to explain. But that was the most intense competition I’ve ever been in, by far. By far.

What is your biggest challenge right now?
To be part of a playoff team, to help the Calgary Flames get to the playoffs, without a doubt. That’s why we play. You want to win the Stanley Cup, but in order to do that, you gotta make the playoffs. Seven years out. Every year it’s gotten harder and harder to be out and watching. Hopefully this is our year. That’s definitely the No. 1 challenge and goal.

What are you most proud of?
One of my proudest moments was playing my first NHL game. It was something that I’d always dreamed of. In grade 7, when teachers used to go around and ask all the students what they wanted to be, I always wanted to be a hockey player. I never really thought of the odds — one in 1,000 or whatever it is. I just really enjoyed it and at 16 made the commitment to go to the WHL in Kamloops. Playing and being able to reach my dream, I’m very blessed.

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