Iginla ready to lead NHL's future

Updated: May 26, 2004, 9:15 PM ET
By Jim Kelley | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- The face of hockey, at least in terms of public perception in the United States, is not always pretty.

A toothless, nameless white Canadian is a favorite caricature of the sport. So, too, is the helmeted, shielded, faceless and bland European.

Sometimes -- the Todd Bertuzzi affair being a recent example -- the face is downright ugly.

Jarome Iginla seems poised to change some of that. It's not just because he has shined as the leading on-ice force for the Calgary Flames in the Stanley Cup playoffs this spring. It's also because he's a leader and a showcase performer equipped with a colorful and engaging personality.

That he is a minority, a black player in a largely white sport, hardly seems to matter. But if that door opens, Iginla is willing to walk through it.

On Wednesday, the Flames captain -- a candidate for the Hart and Conn Smythe trophies as the regular-season and playoff MVP -- was asked whether he would be comfortable playing a larger role in marketing the sport and the NHL, doing for hockey what Tiger Woods has done for golf.

It seems a bit of a stretch at first, but the comparison has merit. Before Woods, golf was considered an elitist sport. That's changing. Before Woods, kids, especially minorities and those from limited means, weren't naturally drawn to the sport or its personalities, and the sport certainly didn't reach out to them. Woods changed that, too.

Hockey isn't that different. The high cost of playing makes it something of an elitist sport, at least in the United States. That's a part of the reason the ratio of black to white players is out of proportion in relation to the rest of the population.

Not having a connection to the game -- a significant role model -- is another.

The NHL has had its share of standout black players, and the league has done a commendable job of both acknowledging and building on their accomplishments during Gary Bettman's tenure as commissioner. In fact, last June, Gerald Coleman was the first NHL Diversity Program player to be drafted when he was selected in the seventh round by the Tampa Bay Lightning.

But there really hasn't been one player that combines megawatt talent on the ice with a wide-ranging personality, then marries it to a seemingly inherent ability to cut across the barriers of race, economics and perception.

Not only could Iginla be that player, he wants to be that player.

Growing up, he said, there were players of color who inspired him, and he would like to do the same.

"I know what it meant to me," he said about watching NHLers such as Claude Vilgrain, Tony McKegney and Grant Fuhr, when he was growing up just outside of Edmonton, Alberta.

Iginla is passionate in that regard. Like a lot of Canadian kids, he grew up in a hockey environment and spent a lot of his youth watching the Edmonton Oilers of the mid 1980s and early 1990s grow from contenders to champions. He loved to watch Wayne Gretzky play and had a special affinity for Mark Messier, Fuhr and company.

"I loved Wayne Gretzky, but everybody loved him," he said. "I loved Mark Messier because of his leadership, his intensity. I [followed] Grant Fuhr because he was a minority player, and I followed other minority players, black players like Claude Vilgrain in New Jersey and Tony McKegney. That was something to me because being the only black player on my team growing up, I dreamt, just like everybody else, to someday be in the NHL.

"When I would say that, some other kids, not trying to be mean or anything, would say well there are not that many black players in the NHL, what are the chances? I know what it meant to me back then. It was nice to be able to say, look at Grant Fuhr winning all those Cups and Claude Vilgrain scoring 30 goals and Tony McKegney 40, there weren't that many. But it was a lot easier to be able to say that and then have other kids going 'Oh yeah, I guess there are.' Those guys allowed me to see that it was possible."

Iginla doesn't see himself as a crusader in that regard, just someone who can and should help advance the game.

"There's so many more back players for young minorities to look up to in all different positions -- great goalies, great defensemen, tough guys, scorers, offensive players -- but I would definitely [want to be an example for kids]," he said. "It's a neat feeling to think that maybe there are some kids in that same situation and that I inspired them."

Iginla used to shy away from this issue. In the past, he seemed more intent on just making himself into a hockey player and downplayed being a minority hockey player. But with success comes confidence, and if the right role were there, Iginla would entertain taking it.

"I'd be comfortable in trying to help, as with other players, and trying to help grow the game," he said. "I mean, it's a great game. I think you look at kids who get involved ... I have a hockey school, and young ones who are 5 or 6, once they get involved, they just love the game, the speed, the equipment and being able to go out and crash around.

"Once they taste it, I think kids fall in love with the game."

And about being the Tiger Woods of hockey?

"Yeah, I think if -- I don't obviously know at that level that it could be done," Iginla said with a laugh, acknowledging the magnitude of Woods' impact. "But if there's any way as part of it, any way to help promote the game as being a player in the NHL ... I'd love to do that.

"I would embrace [that] as I'm sure a lot of players would."

Surely they would. But as the new face of hockey, Iginla could pretty well do it best.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.

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