The emergence of Jarome Iginla
as a true leader came on April 20, 2004. It was Game 7 of the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs against Vancouver in the Canucks’ raucous GM Place. There wasn’t a speech. No garbage can tossed about the dressing room. There simply was action.
On that night, Iginla lifted the underdog Flames onto his shoulders and took them for a ride, scoring twice in regulation and assisting on the overtime winner as the Flames defeated the Canucks, 3-2, to claim their first playoff series since winning the Stanley Cup in 1989.
“Jarome Iginla tonight was a dominating player," Darryl Sutter, then Calgary’s coach and now the team’s general manager, said. "In my 25 years (in professional hockey), the game tonight was as dominating as I've seen one player in one game of playoff hockey."
The opposition agreed.
"In the end you have to compliment their superstar player," Canucks coach Marc Crawford said that night. "He showed up and was outstanding. That was as good a game as I've seen anybody play in my time."
Unfazed by stepping on a stick and watching helplessly as the Canucks tied the game in the dying seconds of regulation, Iginla returned for overtime and slid a puck to Martin Gelinas, who scored the winner.
"The more on the line, the more fun they are to play and the more fun they are to win," said Iginla at the time of winning his first NHL playoff series. "You dream about them when you're younger, to be in an OT Game 7."
Fast-forward to the present Flames and Iginla is performing in a similar way -- on January 17 he was named captain of the Western Conference All-Star team after being voted onto the team as a starter for the game by fans.
"It's a real honour," said Iginla. "This is a special All-Star Game, first to be voted in by the fans as a starter and then to be named captain. I'm really looking forward to it," said Iginla.
The Flames finished November out of a playoff spot, but thanks to a red-hot Iginla leading his team into battle, they are back in the thick of the playoff race in the Western Conference. Iginla is near the top of the League in scoring, was voted into the NHL All-Star Game as a starter by fans and is drawing support in the discussion for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s regular season MVP.
“His preparation has been noteworthy. His performance has been noteworthy. He has had an impact on the whole group,” said Calgary coach Mike Keenan.
“You always could see the players from a distance and the good ones stand out, but I had no contact with Jarome at all before I arrived in Calgary. The attributes that all the great leaders I have been able to coach have that quality, that they come in every day and they’re very successful.”
Perhaps one of the best-known leaders in NHL history is Mark Messier, who was captain of the New York Rangers when Keenan guided that team to a Stanley Cup in 1994.
"I see some similarities between he and Mark Messier in the fact that both are excellent players,” said Keenan. “Mark had more experience in winning than most people in the League and it would be a fundamental value that they both have in that they care for their teammates. You can see him caring for his teammates whether it’s a teammate in pads or one of the trainers. He’s looking out for everyone in the locker room and Mark did the same thing, whether you were there folding towels or on his line. He doesn’t have the experience Mark has had because of the teams Mark has played with, but you can see the similarities and that’s exciting for our team."
Iginla, now in his 12th NHL season, is humble when asked about his leadership and his on-ice success.
“I think every year you learn a little more. I think you feel more comfortable in that role each year,” he said of being the team captain.
“I don’t feel pressured individually to lead,” said Iginla, noting the team has other former captains in the dressing room, including Adrian Aucoin, Craig Conroy and Owen Nolan. “I think our team has a lot of shared leadership.”
On the ice Iginla is having one of his best seasons to date and is on pace to set a new personal high in scoring.
“I think a big part of this is that this is the most talented group I have played with. We’ve all been helping each other, really,” Iginla said. “When you are feeling good you try things and you see things and things just happen, but you are not really thinking.
“When you are not feeling good, it’s the same puck, it’s the same stick, skates and everything and it doesn’t feel the same. You skate around with the puck and it feels square sometimes, literally, because it is not on the right part of your stick when you are going to shoot and you find yourself thinking.”
Suffice to say, it’s been mostly good feelings for the Flames this season, and many believe it is because of Iginla.
“Raw power,” is how Los Angeles Kings captain Rob Blake describes Iginla. “Nothing fancy whatsoever. And he does it year after year. He’ll run you over. Or he’ll fight somebody, and then he’ll score a goal. He does pretty much everything you would want a guy to do.”
“The consistency he plays with every night is an example of how he gets himself ready to play at any time in any building,” said Keenan. “That type of leadership feeds the group and they thrive on it and live off of it. He sets the standard for the team, and as you know it’s a very high standard.”
Iginla and Keenan talk on a regular basis. In fact, when the team was slumping in late November it was Iginla who suggested Keenan put he and Kristian Huselius together on a line.
“The coaches aren’t in the dressing room a lot. The guys in the room know what is going on," said Conroy. "And Iggy can bring that to their attention. And he does that. He has no qualms about that. He will say what is on his mind and the coaches can agree or they don’t agree. It’s a two-way street. But they listen and I think they give him the benefit of the doubt.”
“If something is wrong or something needs saying he always steps up and says something. He is always a leader that leads by example. Everyone follows him,” Huselius said. “He works hard every day. He wants to be the best. He is in great shape. When your captain is in such good shape and works so hard, it is something you learn from and something you follow. As a young player coming up they can watch him and know how much works has to be done. They can learn what it takes. There’s probably not a better guy to learn from.”
If, as many suggest, leadership is nurtured and learned, Iginla got first-hand schooling playing on Canada’s recent Olympic and World Cup teams, with players like Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman and Mario Lemieux.
“That’s three of the top 10 players to ever play the game,” said Iginla. “You learn a lot just watching the way they prepare for games and the way they treat people. To watch and see how humble they are. It’s definitely a good example for the rest of us.”
Flames winger Alex Tanguay has played with Iginla and Sakic. He noted that the pair play different styles on the ice, but share leadership qualities.
“They are both outstanding players and they both lead by example on the ice. That’s one of their biggest assets,” said Tanguay. “It makes it a lot easier to do what you have to do on the ice. They are both outstanding at doing their jobs and showing the way on the ice. That’s one of the reasons they are so successful at being captains.”
While a younger Iginla watched and observed other leaders and captains, he now is setting the bar for young players in the Flames dressing room.
“The first thing the younger players are going to notice is how much he works,” said Conroy. “When he comes to practice, he is there to work. When he gets off practice he goes to the gym and does all his workouts. He is the last guy here after every game. He does above and beyond what a lot of other guys do. A lot of guys couldn’t keep up that pace all season.
“On the ice and in the gym he exemplifies what you have to do. As a captain he knows when to say something or when to talk to the guys. And it means a lot. When he says something in the room everyone is paying attention and listening. He is the leader of this team and I think he has become comfortable in that."