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Remembering the trade that made Iggy a Flame

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

Shortly after New Year's, away on a work junket, Boston, 1996, Al Coates received a belated holiday gift.

It came not in bright, shiny wrapping or under a tree - either plastic or real - but in a 6-foot-2, 190-lb. package.

Only two weeks earlier, the Flames GM had pulled the trigger on a critical deal for the franchise moving forward - trading centre Joe Nieuwendyk to Dallas in exchange for a highly-regarded junior prospect.

Some kid name of Jarome Iginla.

The Calgary scouting staff of the time - most notably western bird-dog Ian McKenzie - had watched Iginla star for the WHL Kamloops Blazers and their recommendations, plus a few outside reviews the GM had solicited, were enough to pull the trigger.

For Coates, those '96 World Juniors was the first real chance to get an up-close look at the kid he'd traded a 50-goal, Calder Trophy-winning icon for.

"For me, personally, to watch somebody dominate his peer group the way he did was very reassuring that we had done right thing, made a real good deal, without, at the time of course, any expectations of a Hall-of-Fame-type career,'' he says now, days prior to the July 30 press conference at the Saddledome where Iginla will officially announce his retirement.

"I know enough about hockey that when you go and watch someone take over a tournament, clear domination, you feel pretty good about the acquisition."

That holiday season in Boston, Iginla scored 12 points, tied for the tournament lead, in pacesetting Canada to a gold medal.

The deal with Dallas GM Bob Gainey had been consummated late on the night of Dec. 19, the league's holiday trade embargo fast approaching.

Coates recalled 10 minutes before the deadline having Dallas on the phone, the NY Rangers on another and the league on a third.

"Anybody in their right mind would be interested in adding Joe Nieuwendyk,'' says Coates. "So what was critical from our standpoint was the criteria for anybody who was seriously interested in acquiring him.

"By our own scouting ratings, Jarome Iginla was an A+, Can't-Miss prospect. I had 13 or 14 interested suitors. I told them: The deal we're going to make is for a player we're going to see in a Calgary Flames' uniform, playing in the league, for the next 10 or 12 years.

"And if somebody didn't have that player, they were out.

"It was easy to get a package of guys, either aging or undetermined. No problem there. The difficult part was getting the Can't-Miss Prospect.

"But that's what we were adamant about."

Iginla joined the Flames following the WHL playoffs that spring, dressing for Games 3 and 4 of Calgary's opening-round series sweep by the Blackhawks.

"If you recall, those two games in the Chicago series,'' reminds Coates, "he played centre. He wore 24, Pep's number. You don't hide at centre ice. You can go up and down the wing and look okay but you stick an 18-year-old at centre ice in the National Hockey League playoffs, it's pretty easy to determine how somebody conducts themselves.

"Another positive piece of reinforcement was Theo (Fleury) coming to me after Jarome's first game, Game 3, and saying: 'You can stick me with that guy any time.'

"That's pretty high praise from a fellow player and a great player."

Over the years, Coates has, naturally, followed as Iginla's star ascended.

"You always cheer for your players,'' says Coates. "You always have an attachment to them. Jarome. Marty St. Louis, same thing.

"You always cheer for guys you either brought to an organization or helped in some way with their career. 

"I don't know if everybody does that, but I do."

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