The sky's the limit for Iginla
Saying Jarome Iginla's star was born during the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs would be a gross miscarriage of justice.
Iginla, after all, has widely been viewed among hockey's elite for several seasons now. But it isn't out of line to say that the Calgary Flames' dynamic power forward took advantage of the opportunity offered by the 2004 postseason to let the rest of the sporting world know that a star has indeed arrived.
"That's very flattering. That's a nice compliment, but that's hard to believe that that would be said," Iginla said when the topic of being the NHL's best player is raised. "No, it's something that this playoff run has been exciting for our team and we all get more coverage.
"I have always wanted to be an elite player in the League and a star in the League and I want to get better," he continued. "I look at some of the best players in the League, (Joe) Sakic and (Peter) Forsberg, you know. Those guys I really look up to, their intensity and their winning. I have always loved Brendan Shanahan's game and playing with Sakic at the Olympics and seeing what kind of player and how dedicated he is and what kind of person he is, it was a great experience. Looking to them how they do it year in and year out.
If we tried to shut down Sakic, you know, you can't. He finds a way to be consistent. So I would like to get better and I feel I am going to work at it and try to get better, but that's a huge compliment."
Make no mistake about it, Iginla has star power. On the ice, his seamless mix of size (6-foot-1, 208 pounds), skill (128 goals during the last three seasons), and snarl (84 penalty minutes during the 2003-04 regular season) conjure up images of a healthy Cam Neely redefining the role of the power forward while with the Boston Bruins.
And perhaps more importantly, Iginla's skills away from the rink are what cast him in the role of the superstar.
As the first black captain in NHL history, Iginla embraces the work of NHL Diversity and his success is a beacon to kids that they too can play hockey, no matter their background or race.
It's also impossible to ignore the fact that Iginla is just a good guy, often eliciting comparisons to retired NHL stars Adam Graves and Pat Lafontaine who are better people than they were players, which says a whole lot.
Just ask any of the media who covered Iginla this season. His smile was infectious, his presence constant during good times and bad for the Flames. He was their captain -- hence their spokesman -- and never ducked the important responsibility. He also made the Flames his own in his first season as captain, accepting the mantle of responsibility with grace and dignity.
Heck, he's so popular that even the opposition can't say a bad thing about him.
"Jarome is not only a great player, but he's a great person," 2004 Finals rival Martin St. Louis said. "He's a great pro athlete. He takes time away from the game and he's just a good all-around person. He's down to earth. As much success as he has, he goes out of his way to say hi to people.
"That's one thing beyond hockey that I think as a person you want to copy," said St. Louis, who first met Iginla while a member of the Flames organization. "But obviously as a player, his statistics don't lie. From his junior career and all the way up to the NHL, he has been an impact on every team he's played on. He's a player that does everything, I feel. He's a big reason why they are where they are at."
Even Detroit Red Wings defenseman Derian Hatcher can't find a discouraging word for Iginla and the two waged quite the battle during the second round of the 2004 playoffs, including a celebrated dust-up in one game.
"It's tough for him," Hatcher told reporters of the extra attention he and the Wings paid to Iginla. "Obviously, with the success he had in his last series, you have to expect to be watched a little closer."
"He's one of those guys you love to watch play the game because he's got that old-time hockey flair to him," Detroit forward Darren McCarty told reporters. "He can do everything."
And the scary part is Darryl Sutter, the Flames' GM and coach, figures better days are coming.
"Jarome's what, 26? I don't think you've seen all what Jarome can be," Sutter said. "There's a lot of pressure on him to be a really good player. He's a high-end guy. He cares and he wants to be a great player."
Iginla has twice won the Rocket Richard Trophy for scoring the most goals during the regular season. He took the trophy outright in 2001-02 during a breakout season in which he scored 52 goals and 44 assists and was the runner-up for the Hart Trophy as the regular-season most valuable player. In 2003-04, he scored 41 goals and shared the Richard Trophy with Columbus' Rick Nash and Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk. He also was a finalist for the Hart Trophy that went to Tampa Bay's St. Louis.
But just as you might expect from the self-effacing Iginla, the individual awards aren't the destination for him. Rather they are sign posts on the way to team success. So, like his teammates, Iginla was crestfallen after coming up a game short against the Lightning in the 2004 Finals.