THE REAL-LIFE DREAMS OF JAROME IGINLA
He’s the reigning NHL scoring champ and a role model for minority kids. And, JAMES DEACON reports, he’s just getting started.
SUMMONING EVERY OUNCE of nerve they’ve got, three small boys approach Jarome Iginla, hoping to speak with hockey’s reigning scoring champ now that practice is over. He’s discreetly decked out in civvies—black leather jacket, pale blue T-shirt, faded jeans—but they’ve spotted him anyway, sitting up in Calgary’s Pengrowth Saddledome stands. At first they keep a polite distance, since he’s already talking to someone else, but it’s clear they’re leaking courage the longer they wait. So Iginla excuses himself from his conversation to greet the boys with a broad smile and a big right hand which, one by one, they shake. By then, though, they’re too cottonmouthed to blurt out a “Hi,” let alone what they came to say, so the big guy gets things rolling. “How ya doin’? Have a fun summer?” Iginla asks. A couple of nods. “How’s school?” he asks. “What grade are you in?” The biggest boy holds up four fingers.
There’s an awkward silence and, finally, one of the boys mumbles the question they came to ask: “Are you playin’ tonight?” he wants to know, and all three lean in for the answer. “No,” Iginla says, explaining that in preseason games the coaches want to see the rookies more than the vets. “Sorry
about that,” he says. Disappointed, the boys turn to go, but Iginla stops them in their tracks. “You guys have anything I can sign?” he asks. They wheel around, happier. “Really?” asks the littlest kid. “Sure,” Iginla says, and he proceeds to autograph the scraps of paper they dig out of their pockets. Several thank-yous later, they shuffle off.
Talk about asking for trouble. As soon as he’s seen signing things for kids, the professional autograph hounds in the building pounce, thrusting hindered sheets of mintcondition trading cards under Iginla’s nose. They don’t apologize for interrupting him. They just watch carefully as he signs dozens of cards, calculating, perhaps, what each will soon sell for in card shops and on Web sites. Iginla knew that was the price he’d pay for taking out a pen for the little boys, but he still did it. “It’s part of the game,” he says.
Not for everyone. Too many pro athletes only smile when the betacams are whirring, and they think their big contracts and athletic gifts entitle them to a free pass on civility. Minnesota Vikings receiver Randy Moss provided the most recent example of extreme jock jerkdom. He nudged his luxury car up to a Minneapolis traffic agent and pushed her down a street last month, eventually knocking her to the ground. The reason? She refused to allow him to make an illegal turn. Didn’t she know the rules don’t apply to superstars?
No wonder the sports world is starving for guys like Iginla. The people who buy tickets and jerseys invest a lot of emotion in the migrant millionaires who play for the home teams, and it hurts when their heroes turn out to be zeroes. So fans, kids especially, connect with Iginla. Starting his seventh full National Hockey League season, he still seems to have that pinchme excitement about playing hockey.
About life in general, in fact. He is resolutely decent, a 25-year-old man whose moral compass is directed by strong but discreet Christian convictions, and who appreciates his great fortune rather than bemoaning the inconveniences of fame. He’s putting his mother through university so she can pursue a second career. He contributes both his time and his money to Calgary-area charities. He’s the nice guy you’d have liked your daughter to bring home if he weren’t already engaged to his junior-high sweetheart. Brad Lukowich, a teammate on Iginla’s junior team in Kamloops, B.C., once summarized: “If you took the best player on the ice, the best leader in the locker room, the best community guy with the fans, and put them altogether, that’s Jarome.”
It is fitting then, that his last name means “big tree” in his father’s dialect, Yoruba. He needs to be stout because, these days, everyone wants a piece of the muscular right winger who won the NHL scoring title last season—he was the only sniper with 50 or more goals (52). With Joe Sakic and Simon Gagné at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, he formed Canada’s most potent forward line on the men’s team that so gloriously won gold. And at season’s end, even though the Flames failed to make the playoffs, he was voted the league’s most-outstanding player by his peers. He’s been inundated with requests from fans, reporters and sponsors (he has deals with EA Sports, Campbell’s and General Mills), leaving it to Flames PR director Peter Hanlon to say no: Iginla hasn’t learned the word yet.
‘IT MEANT A LOT TO ME TO SEE THAT GRANT FUHR WAS WINNING STANLEY CUPS AND BEING AN ALL-STAR. SO
He is also courted because of his skin colour. His Nigerian-born father, Elvis, is black; his American-born mother, Susan Schuchard, is white. So their son, like Tiger Woods, is a multi-racial star in a predominantly white sport and serves as a role model for visible minorities who might feel shut out of the game. Iginla says race never got in the way of his own hockey opportunities when he was a kid in St. Albert, outside Edmonton, but he knew he stood out. Other kids, and their parents, reminded him of that. “I was aware, and others would say to me, that there weren’t many black players in the NHL,” he says tactfully. “So it meant a lot to me that Grant Fuhr was playing right there in Edmonton, winning Stanley Cups and being an all-star. It meant a lot to see Tony McKegney and Claude Vilgrain. I followed those guys, so I’m glad if I can be a role model—I know what it meant to me.”
And then there is his multi-faceted role with the Flames, who open the new NHL season this week. They haven’t qualified for
the playoffs since 1996, and Iginla desperately wants to end that dubious streak. Fans, meanwhile, will be expecting him to justify the two-year pact he just signed with the Flames for a whopping US$13 million, a vast sum for a small-market franchise with a tenuous future (page 34). Some argue the Flames paid too much, but their financial woes might have been worse had they tried selling tickets without their star attraction. So on top of everything else, he’s central to the team’s marketing campaign.
Instead of groaning under the load, Iginla’s remarkably cool about it. “There’s pressure after signing a big deal, pressure to live up to scoring 50 goals, and the way I look at it is this,” he explains. “When I was a kid, I saw Wayne Gretzky doing all the interviews, and Mark Messier and Steve Yzerman. They had all these pressures every year, and they still handled it. So that’s what I want to do too, you know?”
A LOT OF PEOPLE were surprised by Iginla’s dominance last season. They shouldn’t have been. He decided at age 7 he was going to make it to the NHL, after one of his very first games. It soon became clear he was talented, and he succeeded at every level. He won two Memorial Cups for junior-hockey supremacy with the Kamloops Blazers, and the 1996 world junior championship with the national team. Individually, he was named Western Hockey League player of the year in 19951996, and was runner-up for NHL rookie of the year the next season.
Iginla wasn’t originally chosen to take part in the pre-Olympic camp that Gretzky held in Calgary last year. He was added at the last minute because Gagné was injured, and the chance to play with that elite group had a profound effect. He’d measured up against the game’s best. “You could tell it boosted his confidence,” his centreman, Craig Conroy, says. “Jarome’s got a great shot, and after that camp, he started to use it more.”
To the casual observer, Iginla’s talent seems more natural than mechanical, and
¡»LAYING RIGHT THERE IN EDMONTON, SUD IF I CAN BE A ROLE MODEL.’
it’s true he’s a gifted athlete. But a lot of sweat went into his climb into the elite ranks. He has spent hours training with a former decathlete, Rich Hesketh, to add strength and flexibility to his six-feet, oneinch, 200-pound frame. When he reached the NHL, coaches said his skating ought to be better, so he addressed that. “I approach it like a sprinter, trying to get more explosive,” Iginla says of the specialized regimen. Last season, the team needed him to score more, so instead of passing in certain situations, he began to shoot. Bingo, more goals.
Iginla says he’s just doing whatever it takes to be a better player and to win. But it’s an approach that sometimes makes his dad cringe. Elvis hates that his son sometimes has to fight, and he also knows his son isn’t blameless—“As mild as he is off the ice,” Elvis says, “Jarome can be very physical and passionate on the ice.” Iginla is no enforcer, but he knows a fight can sometimes change a team’s momentum. Last week against Edmonton, he and Oilers defenceman Eric Brewer mixed it up a bit.
No offence was intended, Iginla says— Brewer’s a pal from the Olympic team. If anything, Iginla was sending a message to his teammates to play harder in a tight game with a division rival. “That’s part of what happens when our two teams get together,” was all he’d say about it.
DURING A PRACTICE at training camp, working on power play drills, Iginla cruised into the slot, took a pass from Conroy and fired a rocket that nailed goaltender Roman Turek squarely in the head. The lanky netminder fell like a bag of cement, but was slowly returning to his feet by the time everyone gathered to see if he was all right. His helmet was badly dented and askew, but his humour was intact. “Is that the best you’ve got,” he shouted at Iginla.
If success ever inflates Iginla’s head, his teammates will be right there to let out the air. They call him Iggy—how cutting is that? And they rib him for being a dawdler and for arriving late for buses. “That’s because he loves to sleep,” says defenceman Robyn Regehr. “He’d sleep ’til two in the afternoon every day if he could.”
No one in the locker room doubts that Iginla’s the real deal. They talk about his shot and his uncanny knack for getting open in the slot. More than that, though, they talk about character. “He doesn’t let his emotions get away from him,” Conroy says. “He gets a lot of attention from opposing teams, but he keeps his focus and finds ways to get open.” Regehr concurs. “I don’t see him as a one-hit wonder at all,” he says. “His work ethic is phenomenal, and he’s driven—he’s always striving to be the best.”
His motivation has been the same since he was a kid. Some past coaches tried to turn him into a grinder, a 15-goal and 100penalty-minutes-a-season player. He didn’t bite. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “Playing in the NHL is a dream come true and I’d play any role to stay here. But I always dreamed of getting here and being a scorer, an elite player, a star, to be on a winning team, and win Stanley Cups. I know I’m not there yet, but that’s still my goal.”
Skeptics doubt he’ll reach all those goals in Calgary, where the payroll’s barely half of what some teams are spending. In fact, some insiders speculate that if the Flames fall out of contention early this season, they might trade Iginla to a wealthier team for inexpensive prospects. But general manager Craig Button says no such plan exists, and his trade last week to acquire forwards Chris Drury and Stéphane Yelle from Colorado for defender Derek Morris and forwards Jeff Shantz and Dean McAmmond indicates he’s serious about contending. “We’re trying to build a successful team,” Button says, “and Jarome’s a big part of that.”
Iginla’s anxious to speed that up after watching other teams compete in the playoffs the last six years. “Maybe people’ll judge me by goals and points or whatever,” he says. “But to me, what really’d be great is being able to make the playoffs and break that cycle of tough times, and share that with the team.” He’s so focused on that, in fact, that he and his fiancée Kara Kirkland, a physiotherapist, have not set an exact date for their wedding in St. Albert next spring. His hope is he’ll be busy playing into June, and she’s used to having hockey dictate their schedules. They’ve been together since they were 13, give or take the odd rough spot.
HIS FULL NAME IS Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla, and it appears in full on his wrinkled old birth certificate. He was two when his parents divorced, so the only life he remembers is one in which he lived with his mother, who worked long hours outside the home as a massage therapist. His father studied law at the University of Alberta and lived elsewhere, and his maternal grandparents, Richard and Frances Schuchard, looked after him when his mother was at work. It was his grandfather, in fact, who took the boy to his first organized hockey tryout.
Back then, he was exhaustingly energetic. “So my mom got me into everything—bowling, tennis, Little League, you name it,” he says. At one point he fancied he might grow into a Bo Jackson-type athlete, playing pro baseball, the game his grandfather taught him, as well as hockey. But then he looked at the calendar. “The seasons don’t exactly work out,” he says, laughing at himself in retrospect. “And really, I wasn’t that good of a ballplayer.”
Along with sports, he took everything from piano lessons to public speaking classes. “My family’s very musical,” he says. “On my mom’s side, my gramma runs a music school in St. Albert, and my mother’s back
in school studying to be a drama teacher. Anyway, I used to have some battles. They’d put me into music festivals, and public-speaking things.” He blushes at the memory of a shy boy having to perform in front of an audience. “I kept going up ’til junior high, but after that I gave it up.”
By then, he was the star of the St. Albert rep team, and was soon drafted to play for the Blazers. It started badly. “It was tough leaving home at 16 years old, and not playing a lot—I was sitting on the bench, playing two shifts a period,” he explains. He’d been the star at every level, but now, the dream was in doubt. “I remember talking to my grandpa saying, ‘Maybe I
HIS FAMILY NEVER PUSHED HIM-THEY
LET IT BE MY
should just come home.’ But he was like, ‘Give it a little longer.’ He wasn’t saying I couldn’t come home, just that I should give it a try. And it did get better.”
The story triggers another memory of his family. “I was very fortunate in my situation—I wouldn’t change any of it,” he says. “Whatever games I had, they’d go and watch, and they were always so positive. I never heard once that I had a bad game from them. I had bad games, obviously, but I had coaches to let me know that.” Now, he appreciates the fact they never pushed him. They knew he loved to play, he says, “and they let it be my ambition.” Left to his own devices, he set high standards for himself, not just in hockey but in life. “What really defines Jarome,” Elvis Iginla says, “is his sense of right and wrong. He worries about that a lot, and it spills out into his relationships, his work, everything.” That isn’t something that concerns some of today’s superstars, and Elvis knows that. “I’m happy Jarome’s done so well in hockey,” his dad adds, “but I am far happier for the person he has become.” f?l