Skip to main content

 

A FORCE

By George Johnson - CalgaryFlames.com

The memento still occupies a place of distinction on a wall in the Gauthier household.

"As he got closer and closer to 50," Denis Gauthier is explaining, "he'd go into a game, use a stick for a shift or two and then put it away.

"Knowing what was coming.

"Later, he signed them all, wrote a 'Thank You' note on every one.

"Everybody, all the guys on the team, got a stick. So we could share in the accomplishment, feel part of what he'd done.

"I still cherish it. A wonderful gesture.

"But that was Jarome."

On April 8, 2002, at the United Center on Chicago's South Side, a 24-year-old Jarome Iginla connected for his 50th goal of a season for the first time. It came via the powerplay with18.2 seconds remaining in the first period.

It was a laser-beam of a slapshot, naturally, from the top of the right circle that sailed over goaltender Jocelyn Thibault's glove and inches under the crossbar.

Iginla would notch another that night, in a 3-2 loss to the Hawks.

"Honestly, I can't remember the details," confesses Gauthier, a longtime colour analyst for the RDS network in Quebec. "I mean, I can't see the goal in my mind's eye. But I can still feel it.

"I couldn't tell you the result of the game, if we were up by five or down by 10. Didn't matter. What I do remember is the joy on the bench the exact moment he scored, everybody jumping up and being so proud of him, so happy for him.

"I remember that very well.

"Because of the leader he was. Because of the person he was."

As the March 2 jersey-retirement ceremony honouring Jarome Iginla's signature No. 12 nears, the greatest season by the greatest Flame bears reflection.

Oh, he'd go on in a later season to pile up more points than the 96 of that year - reaching 98, in '08-09 - while again tallying 50 goals.

And through the springtime of '04, as everyone so vividly remembers, he piggybacked a team of above-their-station underdogs to within one game of the grail itself.

But that 2001-02 season remains the moment in time when Jarome Iginla became the Jarome Iginla etched in our collective imagination.

He went from a career high in goals of 35 to 52, in points from 71 to the 96.

That summer of 2002, he collected more hardware than you'll find on the shelves of a Home Depot outlet:

• The Art Ross Trophy as leading point producer (only Flame ever).
• The Maurice Richard Trophy for most goals (his first of two, only Flame ever).
• First team NHL All Star, Right Wing.
• Lester B. Pearson Award as his peers' choice as MVP.

No one in this franchise's history has ever been so lavishly lauded individually for a season.

"Just the way he carried himself, the way he came to the rink, is what stays for me," says checking centreman Scott Nichol, now GM for the AHL Milwaukee Admirals.

"I think our team that year mimicked (him). You look at our group. Clarke Wilm. (Steve) Begin. Dave Lowry. Ronald Petrovicky. Craig Berube. Gritty guys.

"We all kind of morphed into his hardness, how he played the game. We didn't have Jarome's skill, obviously. But how he battled, competed, stood up for teammates. We all took that from him.

"Our whole identity was wrapped around him.

"I remember how streaky he was. When he was hot, there was no hotter player. Anywhere. Everything he shot would go in. I sat beside him the dressing room then, after I'd played against him in junior - I was in Portland, he was in Kamloops.

"When he was a young kid, 16, 17, you never thought he'd turn into the kind of player he did, have the career that he had. But once you practice and play with him every day, you see why."

Craig Button, the Calgary GM at the time, traces the trigger for Iginla's breakout campaign back to that September, when an injury opened up a spot at a Team Canada introductory camp being held at Father David Bauer Arena in advance of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City.

"Everyone's heard the story about how he thought someone was playing a prank on him when he got the call," recalls the current TSN analyst. "Well, Jarome went there and quickly came to the realization not only wasn't it a prank, that he wasn't out of place, that not only could he be a good NHL player, an elite player, but that he could be a star."

"It wasn't just: 'Wow! Look at me. Being here with all these famous players.' He understood that he belonged.

"Then they win a gold medal in Salt Lake, he's outstanding at that tournament, comes back and there's no drop-off. He was such a driven guy."

In another bit of earlier happenstance, Iginla's regular centre, Marc Savard, went down in the fourth game of the season, giving an eager checking centreman named Craig Conroy a promotion to the top (read: Iginla) line.

 A kinship was thus born that's lasted to this day.

"I'd played for Greg Gilbert in the minors and I'd had some offensive success - 13 points in five games in the American League, if I remember correctly - and he told me he felt there was a lot of upside there," recalls Conroy.

"Then Marc got hurt in Detroit. Blew out his knee. Jarome had two goals that game. And then he scored, like, 20 goals in 20 games. I remember Marc Savard, at the team Halloween party, saying: 'Hey, don't get too comfortable. I'm getting that spot back.'"

Wishful thinking.

"We just hit it off,'' says Conroy. "And then he winds up scoring 50."

Iginla was then a year away from being named captain.

"I'm sitting on the bench with Jarome during practice at some point that season,'' recollects Button, "and I asked him: 'What are you doing when you're shooting the puck?' And he said: 'Just trying to get it off quick.' I told him: 'Did you know Pavel Bure takes 50 pucks every day and tries to hit one spot on the net with them? 50 pucks. So when it comes up in a game, bang!, he sees the spot and hits it.'

"Jarome kinda nods and goes: 'Ah, ok.'

"Well, when he scored his 50th goal in Chicago, after the game, as everybody's congratulating him, he comes over and says: 'I hit the spot.'"

Consider the epiphany complete.

"It was unfortunate that Marc went down," recalls Gilbert. "But it turned out to be such a good fit, Jarome on a line with Craig and Dean McAmmond. They made Jarome skate. He's such a powerful skater. The other guys created so much room for him.

"And his shot … I haven't seen a whole lot of people in my years who could shoot like him. Hullie could. Bossy could. Jarome was right there, with those guys. Very seldom did he miss the net. And how many times did you see shots of his go through goalies, just because they were so heavy?

"Great kid. Worked his backside off every day. He earned it.

"He'd always been a good player there, maturing, and every year he'd gotten better. At something. He'd get stronger. He'd get smarter. Go down the list.

"Everything that happened, the way he played the game, he wanted it to matter. He wanted to win every night. He epitomized what you dreamed of in a hockey player - a guy who has skill, who sticks up for himself and his teammates, who competes his ass off and is afraid of nothing.

"He was unbelievable that year."

Glancing back, Gauthier, too, feels as if he had an orchestra seat to a hit, everyone-wants-a-ticket, show. Hamilton, maybe. Or Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

"You always knew what kind of effort you'd get out of Jarome,'' he says. "But that year you knew what kind of results you'd get, too. And that's quite different.

"We all just tried the best we could to keep up with Iggy. You really had the sense that he was pulling a team. Not only leading it. Carrying it on his back.

"Not to disrespect to anybody but essentially he was on his own. Holy cow. He certainly didn't have a loaded team around him. No superstars there to feed him pucks, like other guys have.

"That makes what he did even more unbelievable."

The night of the NHL Awards Ceremony at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, Iginla found himself duelling Montreal goalie Jose Theodore for the biggest, brassiest bauble of the evening, the Hart Trophy as MVP.

Ballot points were deadlocked at 434 apiece. So first-place votes - which Theodore carried 26 to 23 - broke the tie.

"I don't think I was … surprised," says Gauthier now. "That's not the word. Disappointed. He's a shoo-in if we make the playoffs. But we didn't. That's usually a big, big factor when people vote. And I get that. I really do.

"But imagine where we would've been if we hadn't had him with us?"

Button shudders to think.

"To me, it was a stunner," he says, indignation on the simmer nearly two decades later. "A dead heat, right? Same number of votes.

"What floored me is that as I remember someone didn't even have him on their ballot, anywhere. OK, you didn't have to vote for him first, but nowhere in the top 5? After collecting the Art Ross, the Rocket Richard? C'mon, gimme a break …

"Jose Theodore was very good, don't get me wrong, but it wasn't as if he had a Carey Price-type year.

"So Jarome not winning was one of those moments where you kinda went: 'Really …?"'

Hart Trophy or not, there's little doubt that 2001-2002 truly announced the arrival of an Iginla era.

"I think that year," reckons Conroy, "took him from really good young player to a star and then the '04 run made him a legend in Calgary.

"Those were the steps.

"Before that year, teams would go into games against the Flames thinking: 'Hey, this is a good young player. Better keep an eye on him.' You were aware, sure, but hey, this is not Mark Messier.

"Then, all of a sudden, you have no choice but to game-plan for him.

"That year, this guy becomes The Key."

The superstar with the high-beams smile will have his No. 12 will be hoisted into the rafters of the 'Dome come Saturday.

"I think of that year, of Jarome, and can still remember that feeling of him scoring the 50th whenever I look at that stick on the wall," says Gauthier.

"We felt there was nothing that could stop him at the time. You could count on him, in a big moment, stepping up and doing something amazing.

"Jarome was a force. There's no other way to describe him.

"I think I can safely speak for everybody there at the time in saying all knew we were witnessing something really special."

VIEW MORE FLAMES EXTRA ARTICLES

Check out more of our in-depth, long reads on your team, published every Saturday or Sunday during the season.