Side By Side Once Again: Iginla, Conroy reunion proof of changing Flames culture

FILE--Calgary Flames center Craig Conroy (24) celebrates his goal with teammate Jarome Iginla (12) during the first period of an NHL hockey game l against the Detroit Red Wings, in Detroit, Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008. (Paul Sancya/CP)

CALGARY – To say their relationship started with a frosty handshake doesn’t go back far enough.

Months before Jarome Iginla and Craig Conroy were officially introduced as teammates, they squared off as combatants.

Yes, their first meeting was a fight – a scrum-induced tussle in St. Louis where one of the game’s budding power forwards stepped up in Marc Savard’s defence to rain a handful of haymakers down on the back of a Lady Byng finalist’s head.

“There were a lot of heavyweights in the league back then, so you’re looking for non-heavyweights,” laughed Iginla of the Oct. 2000 scrap they’ve laughed about for years. 

“I didn’t know much about him.”

He knew enough to know ol’ Connie wasn’t a threat.

Five months later Conroy was traded to Calgary.

However, while Jamie McLennan, Rhett Warrener and all the lads in Calgary loved bringing the briefest of battles up for years, you won’t catch Iginla boasting about the victory.

“Definitely not anymore,” chuckled Iginla from his Kelowna home.

“He’s my boss now.”

Almost a quarter century later the two unlikely besties will now exchange ideas, not fists.

Two decades after handing Iginla the captaincy in an exchange consummated in the team sauna, Conroy announced the hiring of his longtime linemate as special advisor to the GM.

Unofficially, it’s a collaboration that has been in the works for years, as the two have forever shared heated philosophies on everything from video game strategies to style of play.

“The very first night I played with Iggy, Savvy (Savard) left with an injury and we had five points between us, but late in the game on a partial 3 on 2 I dumped it in the corner,” Conroy told me years ago.

“Back at the bench, he says, ‘you’re not on the checking line anymore – next time you dump it in, you go get it.’

“I thought he was joking, but he wasn’t.”

They quickly got on the same page, as it was just one year later Conroy helped Iginla ascend to superstardom with a league-scoring title.

No one could have been more surprised than Iginla, who first greeted Conroy in Calgary with uncharacteristic disdain that started with an uncomfortable handshake the day he was traded to Calgary, and was punctuated with a piercing comment in the following day’s newspaper.

“His quote was, ‘we have enough checkers, I don’t know why we got another one,” said Conroy, a tale he’s told for years, including the night Iginla’s No. 12 was raised to the Saddledome’s rafters.

“I’m like, ‘Tyson Nash told me he’s the nicest guy in the league.’ 

“I wasn’t so sure.”     

It wouldn’t take long before he’d be sure, as two of the most affable Flames in franchise lore quickly built a relationship so tight their families would get in on the act, prompting Christmas visits to the Iginla household where Conroy showed up one year with his skates and stick in tow.

“The kids were inside and we’d be battling one-on-one on the rink in the back, shooting into those tiny nets,” laughed Iginla, the greatest goal scorer in Flames lore.

“I guess he was retired, so I guess I better have won.”

Part of the sell-job on Conroy being named GM last month came with the added bonus of an inevitable reunion with Iginla – a hire the Flames never would have been capable of consummating had the longtime assistant GM not gotten the job.

Given Iginla’s insistence on coaching son Joe one final year at RINK Kelowna, it took a few weeks to iron out what Iginla’s role with the club would look like.

Neither is still quite sure, other than the two will spend plenty of time talking hockey, just like old times.

“We’ve always seen the game similarly, but we’ve never been afraid to challenge one another on playing style or to try making one another better,” said Iginla.

“I was really happy for him to get the job. 

“I think he’s worked really hard and with his competitiveness, communication, drive and ability to build relationships I think he’ll be really good at it.

“And I’m not just saying that because he’s my boss.”

Yes, the band is getting back together, which will only fuel speculation Alex Tanguay and Savard will get interviews as potential Flames assistants.

You get the sense that even more alumni will re-engage with the club, as the culture continues to change rapidly from the dysfunction that stymied the team last year.

You can bet Iginla already had plenty to say about his Huska during the hiring process, as Iginla billeted with the new Flames coach as a 16-year-old in Kamloops, where they won two Memorial Cups together as players.

Since retirement, Iginla has spent the last handful of years coaching high level youngsters, gaining more knowledge and perspective on a game he dominated like few others.

Wager plenty on Iginla being far more immersed in the daily operation of the club one year from now, perhaps as an assistant GM or assistant coach.

“I’m always pulling for the Flames, so it’s pretty cool to be back, working for them,” said the two-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner, who will join the Flames at the draft in Nashville later this month.

“I literally grew up there, so I’m thankful they’ll help me transition back into the NHL.”

After missing the playoffs for seven straight years, it was on Iginla’s back the franchise became relevant again in 2004, with the fiercest of captains combining with goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff to take the Flames to game seven of the Stanley Cup final.

It gave birth to the Red Mile, a renewed fervour for the franchise and elevated the Edmonton native from superstar to Flames icon.

As Conroy said the night Iginla’s number was retired, “it’s not the Calgary Flames without Jarome Iginla.”

Well, he’s back.

And the man who made it happen couldn’t be happier to have him by his side once again.

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