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'I'D ACTUALLY MADE THE NHL'

On the verge of retirement, Iginla recalls his first game as a Flame - the realization of a lifelong dream

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / calgaryflames.com

In this time, of all times, a moment for reminiscing, for reflection, one night comes into sharper focus than virtually any other.

"You go from watching highlights the night before,'' muses the 41-year-old Jarome Iginla of April 21, 1996, "following Calgary, of course - the highlights on TV are always the best part of the playoffs as a kid, right? - to actually being part of it.

"In the space of only a few hours.

"Just surreal.

"So, so surreal.

"I literally go from being a fan one night to centring Theo Fleury - a guy I've watched growing up, such a great, dominating player - and German Titov the next afternoon.

"Facing off against (the Blackhawks), (Jeremy) Roenick. Going in corners against (Chris) Chelios. Shooting on (Ed) Belfour.

"I remember all of it so vividly.

"It was kinda like being inside a video game."

Back in Kamloops, his junior buddies, teammates, were shaken awake after a late night/early morning by their billets with the rather unbelievable news: 'Hey, Jarome's playing!'

"And they were like: 'No way. Can't be. We just left him a few hours ago.'

"I'm sure some of them just rolled over, pulled the pillows back over their head and needed some more convincing."

With the news of Iginla's impending official retirement July 30 at the Scotiabank Saddledome, the man himself couldn't help but think all the way back to Game No. 1, the very first, of a sure-fire, slam-dunk Hall-of-Fame 1,635-game career.

"I've been very fortunate through my career to reach a Stanley Cup final, win an Olympic gold medal, play in other international tournaments, World Juniors and what have you,'' says Iginla, from the family digs in Boston.

"And those are awesome, awesome experiences.

"But that game, the first one as a Flame, was just … well, I'll never forget it.

"We'd lost out the night before in Kamloops and were out, late. One of those year-end things, 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds, right?"

Iginla's agent Don Meehan and Calgary GM Al Coates had already agreed on contract terms for the 19-year-old acquired in the Joe Niewendyk swap with Dallas three months earlier, pending the Blazers' playoff elimination.

"So I knew I was coming up, had a flight in the morning but no one said I'd actually be playing. Meaning I wasn't too nervous. Good thing I didn't know.

"I was just excited to get to Calgary, be a part of the playoffs, practice with NHLers."

Down 2-0 to the favoured Blackhawks in their first-round, best-of-seven series, the Flames decided to fast-track their teenaged hope, banking he might jump-start a competitive renaissance.

Iginla was issued 24, Jim Peplinski's old number.

"I had to get down to the Saddledome, sign my contract and by the time I reached the dressing room - not a word of a lie - everybody else was already getting dressed for warm-ups.

"I tried to go around and introduce myself. You know: 'Hi. I'm Jarome. Pleased to meet you.' I remember Theo getting a little impatient and telling me: 'Okay, enough of this. We've got to get ready to play a game.'"

Iginla would record the first of his 1,635 NHL points - regular and post season - with an assist that night.

Forty-eight hours later, he'd cash his first of 662 goals, Calgary shaded 2-1 in triple OT to be swept out of the playoffs.

A difficult exit. But, even though no one could've been aware in the disappointment, a remarkable era had begun.

"You get drafted, at home in Edmonton, and that was really great,'' says Iginla. "The years pass, you're lucky to play a long time.
"But to actually play that first game … if I'd never played another one, for my parents, my family, what they'd done, and for me, it'd have all been worth it.

"I'd actually made the NHL.

"I've been a part of some neat things over my career, blessed in that way, but that game …

"The coolest, for sure."

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