Hockey

JAROME AND THE RED ‘C’

Strong, speedy—even modest—captain Jarome iginia leads the Flames in their unlikely Cup quest

JAMES DEACON June 7 2004
Hockey

JAROME AND THE RED ‘C’

Strong, speedy—even modest—captain Jarome iginia leads the Flames in their unlikely Cup quest

JAMES DEACON June 7 2004

JAROME AND THE RED ‘C’

Hockey

Strong, speedy—even modest—captain Jarome iginia leads the Flames in their unlikely Cup quest

JAMES DEACON

IN THE CAVERNOUS St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa, out of the blistering Florida heat, Jarome Iginia is preparing for his first-ever Stanley Cup final. Alone. The rest of the Calgary Flames are racing through drills at either end of the ice, and the building resounds with coaches barking and shots ringing off posts. But Iginia is by himself between the blue lines, bent at the waist with his stick braced across his knees, contemplating two pylons. They’re set about five metres apart, close to the boards, and at some silent Go/, Iginia explodes forward and begins stickhandling back and forth around the pylons in tight, highspeed figure eights. As his team’s leading scorer, he’ll be checked closely by the Tampa Bay Lightning, and the drill is designed to help him develop what coaches call “escapability”— controlling the puck while evading the clutches of opposing defenders. “Teams have played Jarome tough in every series, trying to shut him down,” says Flames defenceman Robyn Regehr. “He just fights through it.”

Know why the likeable but unlikely Flames have a chance to win their first Stanley Cup in 15 years? Hard work. Directed by coach Darryl Sutter, the Flames go all out, all game. Their effort makes up for shortcomings like inexperience and an anemic power play. With their relentless forechecking and opportunistic scoring, they wore down heavily favoured Vancouver, Detroit and San Jose—the western conference’s top three teams—in earlier rounds. The Lightning saw tapes of those series, but in Game 1 last week they still looked stunned by the Flames’ speed and tenacity, and lost 4-1. Guess you have to see it in person to believe it. “I think we were a day late in our recognition as far as how good that Calgary team is,” Lightning coach John Tortorella concluded.

The man who best personifies the Flames is Iginia. Off the ice, talking about being in the playoffs, he has this sheepish smile, as if he’s just won the lottery—again. When he’s suited up, though, the team’s aggressive style suits him, both in talent and temperament. The 26-year-old from Edmonton is one of the game’s superstars, but no one in red works harder or is quicker to credit teammates for Calgary’s success. Need someone to score a clutch goal? Or to kill penalties? Or to punch out a head-hunting thug like Detroit’s Derian Hatcher? Jarome’s your man. Sutter, in his deep monotone, sums it up: “He’s a big power guy, he’s an old-school player, plays a lot of minutes, plays the power play, plays the penalty kill, plays against skilled players, plays the last minute of a period, plays the first minute of a period.”

With no meaningful NHL playoff experience on his CV, Iginia could have bombed this spring. The Stanley Cup playoffs are to the regular season what the Daytona 500 is to highway driving. The checking’s so tight that players feel like they’re stickhandling in phone booths. Forget to keep your head up and someone’ll hand you your teeth. Most first-timers struggle to raise the level of their play to meet the challenge—even Wayne Gretzky found the playoffs a steep learning curve at first. Iginla claims he struggled too— “That first game in Vancouver, I didn’t play well”—but he has since thrived and thinks he knows why. “Seven years of pent-up energy,” he says, grinning. He’s alluding to the number of straight seasons in which his team failed to qualify for post-season play. “That and desperation,” he adds, referring to the fear that he might never again get such a good shot at the Cup.

Here’s another explanation: practice. Iginla developed his feared shot through repetition and strength-training. Feeling he was too slow, he worked with a former decathlete to create his sprinter-like power and speed. That was particularly useful on the big ice at the 2002 Olympics where, after being invited to training camp as a last-minute fillin, he cracked Canada’s top line and scored twice in the gold-medal-clinching game. He takes the same approach to off-ice responsibilities, with charities and as a role model for visible minorities in the sport. There were few black kids playing hockey when he was a boy, but he stoked his NHL dream by watching guys like Grant Fuhr and Tony McKegney. “I know what it meant to me,” he says. “It’s hard to put into words, but it made me feel that it was possible.”

Leadership might be Iginla’s most important contribution to Calgary’s long-shot Cup quest. In order for others to buy into Sutter’s exhausting system, Iginla had to buy in first. He took over as captain from his linemate and pal, Craig Conroy, last fall, and reinforced the team work ethic. “I’ll talk to guys in the room if it’s needed,” he says, describing his style, “but I’m more of a lead-by-example guy.” He sees being available to the media as part of the job, not so that he can promote himself—Iginla’s modesty is real—but to serve fans. He remembers, following the Oilers as a kid, seeing Gretzky answer questions after every game. And he’s willing to stand up for his team and dish out some old-time hockey justice with his fists—he even went after Lightning goon André Roy at the end of Tampa’s 4-1 win in Game 2. Then there’s his on-ice production. His brilliant short-handed goal in Game 1 stifled a Lightning surge. “There’s a playoff saying about your best players having to be your best players,” Conroy says. “Jarome has just been fantastic for us.”

His other linemate, Martin Celinas, calls Iginla “probably the best leader I’ve played with.” Gelinas may be biased right now: he played on a Cup-winning team captained by Mark Messier back in 1990. But Iginla does seem the natural heir to a few hall-of-fame captains—he can be as gentlemanly as Jean Béliveau, as diplomatic as Gretzky and as fierce as Messier. And if there’s a way to practise leadership, some drill that hones charisma, well, you just know Iginla will be off by himself, working on that too. I?]

james.deacon@macleans.rogers.com