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Flames debut holds great importance for Iginla

Jarome Iginla's first game in Calgary, during the 1996 Stanley Cup Playoffs, remains one of his favourite career memories

by George Johnson @GeorgejohnsonCH /

CALGARY, AB -- The Long Goodbye is not something Jarome Iginla dwells on. Anguishes over. Pounds his pillow late at night fretting about.

His place in the game's history, his place in this city's heart, how he will be remembered, those are matters for others to contemplate.

So, no, in case you're wondering, he won't be taking mental keepsake photos Wednesday night for his memory scrapbook. 

No long, doe-eyed looks of potential goodbye, just in case. No 'taking it all in' moments of nostalgia.

A fella can't do those things, not when he's too busy enjoying the here, the now.

"Could be,'' acknowledged the greatest-ever Calgary Flame, when asked about the possibility of this perhaps being his final spin around a sheet of ice he held absolute sway over for a decade and a half. "I don't know. I do think about that in different buildings …

"But I don't know what the future holds, whether I'll be playing next year.

"So I guess it could be.

"But that's as much as I think about that part of it. I'm just going to play. I'm not going to skate around thinking (Wednesday might be the his Saddledome swansong).

"Whenever that is - and my last game, whenever it is - I'm just going to try and play and enjoy it. Everything goes so fast.

"Tonnes of good memories. Great experiences. Friendships. Battles. Competing.

"It won't be in my head. My biggest focus is just playing well and getting the season back on track.

"It's not about just trying to play it out."

Jarome Iginla, understand, is not here on an old-neighbourhood tour. He's here on a business trip.

The End, as he says, remains a mystery.

But the beginning … ah, now that's something he's happy to glance back on.

Drift back to April, 4, 1996, and an 18-year-old Iginla parachuting into Calgary to sign an agreed-upon contract and then being hustled into the lineup for Game 3 of the opening round playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks.

"I've played a lot of games over the years,'' he was recalling following Colorado's 1:00 PM practice on Monday, "but that was probably the most fun. 

"We lost out in junior (Kamloops) the night before and we went out as a team, as you do, a year-end thing, the last time together.

"I knew I was coming up but I had no idea I'd be playing.

"So as an 18-year-old I wasn't used to, uh, getting to sleep early. It was an afternoon game. 1:00 PM? So I didn't get a lot of sleep. It's a good thing I didn't know … I probably would have got less sleep than I actually did. Been worse off.

"How much sleep did I get? You could definitely count (the hours) on one hand."

The one thing that's been wonderful about Jarome Iginla down through the years, even as his star ascended, his accomplishments piled ever higher and his renown steadily grew, is that he's never lost a little-boy sense of wonder about the journey.

And that game two decades ago, the first of 1,592 (regular and postseason), still stands out.

"I'm not exaggerating, there was not much time to warm-up,'' he laughs. "I had my bag on my back, when I got to the rink the trainers grabbed it.

"It was pretty cool because some of the guys I played junior with said their billets woke them up and said, 'Oh, he's on TV!' And they're like, 'There's no chance …'

"I was out in warm-up and they told me I was going to centre Theo (Fleury) and (German) Titov.

"It was truly a dream. You go from the night before, watching all the highlights of the playoffs to being out there, the crowd, everything.

"I'm literally a fan of the guys I'm playing with and playing against (Jeremy) Roenick and (Chris) Chelios and shooting on Belfour.

"It was literally the coolest game. I've had some fun ones, the Olympics, playoffs but that, I've got to say, was pretty neat.

"Family and friends coming down. And it doesn't feel like that long ago."

Nearing 40, the Stanley Cup fantasy, the one that seemed close enough to reach out and touch back in 2004, remains as strong as ever.

"Oh, absolutely. It's still the dream. And it's still possible. We'll see what happens. I've come to appreciate over the years how many good things have to come together and how fortunate people who it are.

"But it's still what I play for. Yes, absolutely."

The Avalanche do pay another visit the Dome, on March 27th but that's a month after the trade deadline and unless the Colorado can get their ship off the rocks and into open water, offloading a veteran star to a team looking to add experience or leadership is a definite possibility.

And Iginla admits the option would be an enticing one. The dream, after all.

"Oh yeah, I'd consider it. I'd like to be in the playoffs and have that chance. The deadline is still a couple months off so a lot of things can change.

"But that's part of the game, part of sports. Teams at the deadline, whether they're in or out, try to get assets. I know how that works.

"Yeah, it's something down the road but I realize that's a possibility."

There have been no shortage of wonderful players don the Flaming C over the years. Think Nieuwendyk. MacInnis. McDonald. Fleury. Kiprusoff. Nilsson. Mullen. Loob. Suter. Vernon.

But none could be identified in their era as the best player in the game.

Jarome Iginla, for a handful of years, anyway, made a compelling case at being just that.

"Do I feel old?'' A shrug. "Well, there's 20-year-olds and guys that are half my age. It keeps you young, though. It's fun.

"It's an honour, to be able to be the oldest guy on the team. Definitely very fortunate. The alternative is I wouldn't be playing anymore.

"I'm still here. Still competing out there."

The last time?

Wherever, whenever, it's been one helluva ride.

"I still think,'' he says deflectively, "it's going to get better; I've got better in me.

"Lots of great memories here. I think there always will be. It's not quite as strange anymore. At first it's quite an adjustment.

"I get more comfortable each time.

"But always fun to come back, for sure."

Always fun to have him. Consider it a standing invitation.

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