Commentary

Iginla the eternal Calgary Flame

Updated: March 2, 2009, 3:18 PM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Maybe Sally Haggis, an admittedly fair-weather Calgary Flames fan, had the best take on the relationship.

She likened it to the moment Renee Zellweger stared deep into Tom Cruise's baby blues in the movie "Jerry Maguire," and said:

"You had me at hello."

Jarome Iginla
Gerry Thomas/NHLI/Getty ImagesJarome Iginla led the Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup finals in 2004.

That's Jarome Iginla and the city of Calgary pared down to the essentials.

All it took was an introduction, and they melted.

"Everybody in this city thinks they know Jarome," said linemate and sidekick Craig Conroy with a laugh. "He's like their son or their best buddy. That's his personality. That's the effect he has on people."

In context, he is to the Flames' organization what Kobe is to Showtime. What Peyton is to the Colts. What Ella is to jazz.

On Sunday, an expectant 19,289 fans in the Pengrowth Saddledome, and a million more in outlying areas, celebrated as one as Iginla passed Theo Fleury's franchise record of 830 points by posting five points in Calgary's chaotic 8-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Iginla now has 834 points in 922 career games with the Flames.

In this town, he's bigger than oil and stands taller than the Calgary Tower. Why, the man's popularity is positively Lanny McDonald-like.

After years of sadly watching the finest talent eventually leave for larger centers over money squabbles -- Joe Nieuwendyk, Al MacInnis, Doug Gilmour, even Fleury himself -- fans are convinced Iginla is going to be the superstar that sticks. They see him being the first Flame to score 500 goals and record 1,000 points, all in a Calgary uniform.

He sees it, too.

"When you start out, you don't think about nights like this," Iginla said after setting the record. "You just want to prove you can play in the league."

Oh, he can play all right. Over the past decade, Iginla ranks among the most consistent, dynamic players anywhere. He can score like Vincent Lecavalier, hit like Alex Ovechkin and take the till of the boat like Sidney Crosby.

There are those who fervently believe, though, Iginla has, in a sense, been wasted out in the Western Canadian hinterlands; that hockey as a sport and he himself would've been far better served in a major U.S. market.

His Gary Cooper-ish "Aw, shucks" personality. The potent on-ice cocktail of power and precision. The emphasis the league is putting on diversity. In an era when Sean Avery talks like a pubescent schoolboy, when we watch A-Rod coming "clean" about being dirty, Jarome Iginla comes across as a breath of fresh air.

"Oh, can you imagine Iggy in New York?" said Conroy. "With the media there and the advertising opportunities, the stuff he does for Nike, and all the bright lights. Look at [Mark] Messier. He was a great, great player in Edmonton, won a lot of Cups; but it wasn't until he arrived in New York that people started calling him 'The greatest leader ever.'

"Hey, it wasn't as if he'd changed as a player overnight just because he changed jerseys. A lot of that was Messier, sure, but a lot of it was the city, too."

Would Iginla have been better off in a bigger market, where best to capitalize on his near-matchless combination of ability and affability? That's debatable. But what matters is, he doesn't care. Iginla doesn't think he's missing out on a thing.

"I don't think about it, honestly," he said. "I don't bother with 'What ifs' or 'The grass is greener somewhere else.' I like it fine right where I am. My mom has moved here [from Edmonton] to teach. My dad is close. My grandparents, too. They can all come to games. I have three little ones now. Everybody sees everybody. We're a family.

"I've had a great time here. For me, it's an ideal situation -- passionate fans, a lot of interest, but you still have space. And now we've got a great team, too. I'd trade all the goals and all the points for a Stanley Cup. And we're heading in that direction.

"I'm proud and happy that I've been able to be a Calgary Flame this long. There were a couple of times there, when the team was rebuilding, when I thought I might be traded. We had some tough years. But here I am still, and I couldn't be happier."

Way back when he was a St. Louis Blue, Conroy remembers sitting in a hotel room on the road, watching TV and hearing the scuttlebutt that Iginla was on his way to Buffalo.

"I didn't know Jarome as a person then," Conroy said. "I knew he was a good player, but I didn't know he was a great player. When the guy on TV mentioned Buffalo, all I remember thinking was 'Good, he'll be out of our conference. He's a pain in the ass to play against.'

"Boy, am I happy now they didn't make that deal."

So is the city that has adopted him.

"What it is, is a testament to the ownership of the team and Jarome himself," said former Flames GM Al Coates, the man who acquired Iginla from Dallas in exchange for holdout captain Nieuwendyk back in 1995. "It's exceedingly rare these days to see an athlete spend his entire career with one organization, loyalty on both sides."

On his record-shattering evening, Iginla asked not to make a big deal of it. No JumboTron video tribute. No stop-the-game on-ice presentation. No fuss. No bother. A small, almost embarrassed wave of acknowledgment was all he'd permit himself as the cheers washed down from every corner of the building. Typical Iginla.

As the NHL trade deadline approaches, so many prominent names are being bandied about -- Chris Pronger, Ryan Smyth, Tomas Kaberle, Mark Recchi, Olli Jokinen, Bill Guerin, Martin St. Louis, Lecavalier. But one guy who isn't going anywhere is Jarome Iginla.

Not now. Not ever.

"I can't ever see him leaving," said Conroy. "Man, people would absolutely riot. He means too much to the city and the team. They mean too much to him. I guess you never say never, but, nah, I can't see it happening. At least, I hope it never happens.

"He's only 31, in such great shape that he could play until he's 40. Before he retires, he'll own every [franchise] record they can think up. And he'll set records that no one will ever break."

Yes, he had them at hello.

And, better yet, they'll still be his at goodbye.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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