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'NO ONE DESERVES IT MORE'

Former coach and teammates weigh in on upcoming jersey retirement for No. 12

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

As an impressionable whippersnapper in his mid-to-late-20s, Rich Preston was fortunate enough to rub shoulders with legends:

The Golden Jet, Bobby Hull, during Preston's WHA Winnipeg stay.

Through Stan Mikita's final season on the south side of the Windy City.

Oh yes, and during his early days as a Houston Aero, none other than No. 9, Gordie Howe. The most famous son of Floral, Sask.

"I played with Gordie, for three years," recalls Preston, the two-tenure Flames assistant coach, now in his fourth season as part of the Anaheim Ducks' tutorial staff. "He was 45, 46, 47 and still our best player. 

"One year we were even on the same line: Howe, Howe and Who?

"The most soft-spoken guy, Gordie. When he talked you'd have to lean in and go: 'Uh, what was that again, Gordie …? But when the game started, he was our fiercest competitor. Every night. At his age.

"Gordie didn't say much.

"Didn't have to. It was all out there, on the ice.

"To me, the most effective way to lead is by example.

"Show me, don't tell me.

"That was Gordie.

"And that was Jarome."

There will always be only one Mr. Hockey, of course. Utterly unique. Nothing, no one, to compare.

But for so many years, Jarome Iginla wore a similar moniker in this town.

Great leader.

Great competitor.

Great role model.

Great person.

That, in baseball parlance, is what's called hitting for the cycle.

Yes, Iginla could hit. Score. Fight. Lash a team to his back and lug it into battle.

In short, do it all.

"With Iggy," chuckles Preston, "it was definitely Don't Poke the Bear. That just revved up his intensity. One night, I remember, we're playing against Sean Avery, who's a real (trouble maker), right? He loves that.

"Anyway, we start Iggy's line. I'm thinking: 'Please. Please. Please!' Sure enough, they start Avery. 

"And I'm going," pauses Preston, rubbing his hands together with glee, "yessssssss.

"Opening face-off, Avery's sticking him, swearing at him, threatening him …

"Guess who scored two goals and was first star that night?

"Sure wasn't Sean Avery."

That acute, inborn drive, says former teammate Adrian Aucoin, extended everywhere.

"Oh, yeah, his level of competitiveness was off the charts,'' says the 18-year D-man, a Flame from 2007 through 2009. "Whether you were golfing with him or arguing with him. Whatever. It was amazing on the ice to see a guy that had that talent AND that fire. I mean, your top player and your captain has no problem going after someone, dropping the gloves? You don't see that every day.

"Jarome took that competitive edge into everything. For instance, he always wanted to wrestle guys. Not that I wouldn't if I had to but because I was older, with groins, back, you know, I wanted nothing to do with the guy. 

"Any takers, it was game on for him.

"I always thought that was funny because he was probably in his early-to-mid-30s then. The one thing about pro sport is that you're given the opportunity to elongate your childhood years because what you are is playing a game for a living. Iggy took that to a whole new level.

"Here we've got these grown men wrestling, having the time of their lives and just about 99 percent of the time he came out on top.

"We'd also, a group of six to eight of us, play online games against each other on airplanes. It would become so heated. Him and Conny would be on a team, me and, say, Owen Nolan, on another. Corey Sarich would get involved. Other guys.

"I had a really good knack for getting under Iggy's skin. So I'd start chirping him and he'd start yelling at Conny to help him out; get so mad."

What sticks with these allies, friends - those closest to Iginla through the passing of his seasons here - long after the goals, the hits, the attention, is the man and his character.

"As coaches, you have your arguments with players,'' says Preston. "Happens all the time. At the end of the day, though, it's all-for-one, one-for-all.

"One night, Iggy and I kinda had a blow-up. A doozy, actually. Playoffs, '07 or '08. About D-zone coverage or something, inside the video-room/gym. All the media's outside the door, listening to us going back and forth. I told them later I was just telling Iggy what a horse-- playoff beard he had, to diffuse it.

"Anyway, a long time ago.

"Well, when he retired, I sent a note congratulating him on his career, told him: 'You're a great player but to me you're an even better person and role model.' And I meant it, of course. Well, he sends one back, and I'm keeping it: 'Thanks very much, Rico. I still feel bad about that blow-up we had in the gym, in the playoffs. I apologize for that again.'

"Imagine.

"I hadn't thought of it for years. You finish yelling, it's over, right?

"But Iggy still felt bad. It still bugged him. After all that time.

"That's the type of person he is."

The type of symbol he became.

"Canada is a great place to play … when you have a good team, when you're winning,'' notes long-time teammate Robyn Regehr wryly.

"That being said, there's no more difficult place to play if you don't have a good team. Because there's nowhere to hide; can't get away from hockey.

"When you're winning, you get thrown a lot of softball questions. When you're losing, you get the tough questions at the rink, you get the tough questions at the drugstore, you get the tough questions turning into the next aisle at the grocery store, you get the tough questions in line for popcorn at the movie theatre.

"You don't get away from it.

"So he saw both ends of the spectrum on that. And he handled it all so well."

Taken in all, the total package, Iginla ranks at the very summit of achievement in this franchise.

"I'm biased but I think he's the greatest Flame ever," say pal Craig Conroy. "I got to play with some unbelievable players … Al (MacInnis), Hullie, Chris Pronger. He's in that category.

"The day he was traded, that last game, I was there. I went upstairs, came back down, I knew what was happening. Just a weird feeling - weird - knowing he'd no longer be a Calgary Flame.

"No more No. 12.

"But now to have it back in the building, where it belongs, up in the rafters …"

An entire city gets the opportunity to celebrate, in person or in front of the TV, Saturday's festivities.

"No one," says another old Iginla collaborator, 2004's Eliminator, Martin Gelinas, with real warmth, "deserves it more.

"After Saturday, after that sweater's hanging up there, at the top the Saddledome, there's only one other place left to for Iggy to go, right?"

That'd be 30 Yonge Street, Toronto, home to a certain hallowed Hall.

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