Jarome Iginla’s fire still burns bright even in retirement

Former NHL star Jarome Iginla meets with the media in Calgary to reflect on his career.

CALGARY — Jarome Iginla still remembers that long, heart-wrenching walk out of the St. Pete Times Forum that muggy June evening.

Next to him strode downtrodden coach Darryl Sutter, who listened to the captain lament the fact he couldn’t come up with one more goal somewhere along the way to help make their Stanley Cup dreams come true.

His Calgary Flames had just lost Game 7 of the 2004 Cup final 2-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning, ending one of the most improbable playoff runs of the NHL’s modern era.

After igniting the city and perhaps saving the franchise with newfound hope for a team devoid of playoff hockey the previous seven seasons, the run propped up by Iginla, goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and Sutter came to the most devastating of conclusions.

Fifteen years later, on eve of his jersey retirement ceremony, Iginla admitted the sting and foreign feeling of falling short in the biggest of games is still hard to contemplate.

"It took a while to get over it — it wasn’t like the next season it was just, ‘Great, let’s go do it again," said a refreshingly candid Iginla, surrounded by endless family, friends, teammates and fans at a luncheon in his honour.

"Even now, when I look back at it, we were that close. You think of one goal, you think of one shot, you think of the goal that didn’t count. You think of those type of things.

"But it wasn’t meant to be, in my mind. I have that faith. I look back and try to focus on the good memories."

Pausing, as if reminded this weekend’s celebration of No. 12 should revolve around the accomplishments, not the disappointments, he made a declaration every Flames fan should take solace in.

"I wouldn’t change it," said Iginla, adding a qualifier.

"If you said, ‘Would you go through that and make it all the way there and go through the pain of losing, would you do it again?’

"I would. There are that many great memories and great little battles we won. The success we had as a group. We didn’t get the big win, but it’s something I look back on and it’s not hard to look back on. I look back at it as a good time."

A winner of virtually every other hockey title a team could battle for in hockey, including three provincial crowns his St. Albert squad won in minor hockey, Iginla retired last summer missing just one championship on his resumé.

No hockey fan alive could possibly think any less of the first ballot Hall of Famer.

He’ll forever be remembered as a warrior on the ice and the classiest of ambassadors off it.

En route to eclipsing 500 goals and 1,000 points as a Flame, Iginla personally donated $700,000 to KidSport Calgary, while also attending endless charitable events as the face of the franchise.

The face of the city.

Hangin’ at the Dome, Chillin’ with Jarome became part of the local lexicon as he either scored, assisted, fought and/or willed his team to wins.

For a three- or four-year period he was arguably the best player in the game, yet would take on anybody in the league if a teammate needed defending, his team needed a spark or he simply snapped.

That same intensity brought him and teammates close to blows over things like video game challenges and table tennis contests. It’s an edge he admits he still carries today when something — anything — is on the line.

Living in Boston where he coaches his two sons, 10 and 12, six days a week, Iginla was asked to confirm if indeed he’d recently been kicked out of a game.

"Not recently," he chuckled, before sheepishly playing along with a grin.

"I guess it depends what recently means. Yes, I did. I’m probably a little more intense than I thought I would be. I’m really enjoying it and learning on the job. I talked to the referee after and it was just a misunderstanding of what you’re able to get away with compared to what NHL referees will let go. In minor hockey you’re not supposed to say anything I’m learning. There was no cursing. I don’t plan on it happening again."

The point is, the fire still burns bright for one of the game’s scrappiest hombres.

Even after hip surgery he still hoped to rehab in time to play in the 2017 Spengler Cup with an eye on parlaying that into an Olympic chance and a playoff run with the Bruins.

Now his focus is cooking, the kids and coaching.

Jordan Eberle said last week his Oilers talked before every battle with Calgary about the importance of avoiding anything that might agitate Iginla. It only served to bring on the wrath of a man who could beat you so many ways.

It made for the juxtaposition he’s known for, as an ever-smiling, humble, boy-next-door type Albertan that every man hopes his daughter will one day marry.

"It’s a nice occasion so they shade it," said Iginla when asked about praise of his humility that follows him wherever he goes.

"I was just so blessed to have so many great teammates."

That was his way — the hockey way — to forever deflect from praise, turning it instead towards his mates.

Participating in an entertaining hot stove with Martin Gelinas, Robyn Regehr, Jamie McLennan and his bestie, Craig Conroy, Friday, people saw a far more relaxed and funny Iginla than ever before.

He’s soaking this weekend up, thankful the Flames are honouring him so soon after his summer retirement so his hockey-mad sons and daughter could appreciate it.

"They think it’s cool and I think it’s cool too," he said with a smile.

As he spoke, the two boys were playing mini-sticks in the Saddledome hallway, proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Asked how he thinks Saturday night’s 40-minute celebration will feel, he flashed the smile every Calgarian fell in love with.

"I don’t think I’m a sentimental or overly sensitive guy, but it could be hard to hold it together — it’s so many memories all at once," he said of seeing his number head to the rafters alongside Mike Vernon’s and Lanny McDonald’s.

"I’ll just try and take it in. It’s great to be back. I’ll probably be a little emotional. It’s very special and I have a lot of family and friends coming in and it means a lot.

"I never dreamed I’d ever have my jersey up there — I was just thrilled to be in the NHL and was lucky enough to play 20 years. It’s surreal. I’m looking forward to it."

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