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Iginla was everything the Flames could have asked for, both on and off the ice, says Fleury

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

The abdicating king had already, instinctively, grasped the transference of power.

He'd identified the candidate best equipped to ascend his throne.

Even if that heir apparent didn't at first fully fathom the scope of what he'd inherited and would need a few years for the coronation to feel complete.

"Oh, I knew he'd be The Guy,'' Theo Fleury is saying on Jarome Iginla Retirement Day. "That Guy.
"He had to be.

"We sat at many of these after games," Fleury knuckle-rapped the counter at the back of the Scotiabank Saddledome Chrysler Club, "and talked about it.

"You know, as a team we weren't very good.

"So I would say to Jarome: 'You've got to be better. We're counting on you. You need to be better. You have to be better. Otherwise …'

"I mean, I'm 5-foot-6 and 150 pounds soaking wet with rocks in my pockets. I'm not going to do it.

"I was trying to convince him. I kept badgering him and he probably thought I was crazy.

"But I'd tell him: 'Look, you've got all the tools. You're big, you're strong, you can fight, you can score, you can take games over.'

"He had every possible attribute.

"And I'd tell him: 'This is going to be your team to lead someday.'"

Someday arrived Feb. 28, 1999, the Flames dealing Fleury, the gap-toothed, anarchy-with-a-wink face of the franchise and their all-time leading scorer, to the Colorado Avalanche in exchange for René Corbet, Wade Belak and a sizeable defence prospect named Robyn Regehr.

And now, with him gone, someone - someone special - needed to step purposefully into an awfully large void at a very delicate moment in time.

"There was no question in my mind who that someone was,'' Fleury is saying, approaching 20 years later. "NO question.

"I mean, we traded Joe Nieuwendyk for him. Joe Nieuwendyk! Pretty darn good player, Joe Nieuwendyk, right?

"You don't trade Joe Nieuwendyk for just anybody."

In front of a large throng in the Chrysler Club on Monday morning, with old cohorts such as Noodles and Reggie and Rhett and Gelly and Conny in the room, along with his mom and dad, wife Kara and kids, friends and other family members, Iginla took his leave of the NHL after 20 years.

A singular career. A can't-be-beat icon.

The start of Iginla's ascent to superstardom can be traced back to Feb. 28, 1999.

"Not really, not in those terms,'' replies Iginla Monday, asked about feeling any back-bending expectations in the absence of Fleury. "I'd talk to Theo. He helped me with the game, explained things.

"As time goes on, you learn there's all different types of leadership. When I first came, a lot of the (players) I remember were the vocal ones. And I was pretty quiet when I first came in.

"As you go on, though, as I played and learned from different guys, you realize there's all different types of leadership and you lead in your own way.

"I knew there was pressure, though. I was part of the Joe Nieuwendyk trade so right from then on I knew there'd be a chance, an opportunity, to be a focus, be a go-to guy on the team.

"But when you're going through it, going through the droughts, you're just trying to stay focused and not to think too much about that.

"But I do remember him working with me, sometimes giving me trouble, like: 'Step up a little more!' Things like that. 

"He was a pretty intense guy, right?"

As the years passed, Fleury would watch from other cities, in other organizations, and then into retirement, back here at home, as the one-time king-in-waiting's star grew ever brighter, as he eclipsed all of his predecessor's career franchise records.

And now, a decade after Fleury finally hung up the skates competitively, Iginla joins him in retirement.

"What a great career. I mean, I'd like to lay an 'I told you so' on you,'' says Fleury, "but it was pretty obvious. And he delivered.

"Some of us took the mantle and ran with it the best way we knew how. But Iggy … Iggy took it to the highest level.

"He had to step up and put the whole thing on his shoulders. I mean, he had to.

"And this tells you everything you need to know about the guy, both as a player and as a person: He did."

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