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Iginla: The Debut That Almost Wasn't

by Sam Kasan / Pittsburgh Penguins

On Saturday afternoon, March 30, Jarome Iginla walked down the runway and stepped onto the ice at CONSOL Energy Center wearing a Penguins jersey. It was the first time in his 16-year NHL career that Iginla took the ice without a Calgary Flames sweater.

Three days earlier the Penguins and Flames pulled the trigger on a blockbuster trade that landed Iginla in Pittsburgh. The record crowd of 18,673 cheered rambunctiously as the Canadian icon skated his first warmup lap with his new team.

But what those cacophonous fans didn’t know at time was that Iginla came dangerously close to not making his debut on that afternoon.

On Friday, the day before his debut, Iginla and his hockey equipment were in Calgary. In order for him to play with the Penguins on Saturday, both Iginla and his gear needed to make it to Pittsburgh in time for the 1 p.m. afternoon tilt against the NY Islanders. While both eventually made it in Pittsburgh in time, it came down to the zero hour.

First was the issue of Iginla’s arrival. The proper paperwork needed to be filed with the United States government for a work visa. The immigration process was completed quickly. Friday morning everything was resolved and the team booked Iginla a flight to Pittsburgh.

Iginla, who had his luggage packed for a few days waiting for that call, talked to Dan Bylsma and lobbied his new coach to play the following day despite having no practice or meeting his new teammates. Bylsma agreed and Iginla headed to the airport for a 2:30 p.m. flight, anxious to finally be playing hockey again.

However, the first issue arrived with Iginla’s flight. He was scheduled to fly from Calgary to Chicago, then take a connecting flight to Pittsburgh. But his initial flight was delayed by two hours, causing him to miss his connecting flight to Pittsburgh. It appeared Iginla was stranded in Chicago.

Iginla arrived at the CONSOL Energy Center locker room Saturday with only the clothes on his back.

“I didn’t know if I would play (Saturday) because I missed my connection,” Iginla said. “I knew it was an afternoon game the next day. I wanted to play and wanted to get there and get going.”

The Penguins were able to find him a later flight to Pittsburgh. But all his personal belongings were in limbo, having been shipped in accordance with the original flight plan. So Iginla, with only the clothes he had on, left everything behind and flew to Pittsburgh.

“I was thrilled because I thought I’d stay in Chicago that night and fly (to Pittsburgh) the next day,” Iginla said. “But I had no clothes.”

Iginla landed in his new city a little past midnight. However, that’s when he learned some more bad news and another obstacle to his debut. His hockey equipment, which had been shipped separately, had gone missing.

That’s where FedEx stepped in. Despite it being Easter weekend, with limited resources and people, FedEx was able to locate his gear, which was in a shipping hub in Memphis, Tennessee. They made it their highest priority to get the equipment to Pittsburgh in time for the game. The gear was placed on an overnight flight from Memphis to Pittsburgh Saturday morning.

Iginla went to CONSOL Energy Center early Saturday morning in the clothes he wore the previous day and unsure of his status.

“I got to the rink not knowing if I’d be playing or not,” Iginla said. “I was preparing either way. They were pretty sure they would get it there for game time.”

Bylsma had penciled Iginla in the lineup, but everyone was still waiting for his gear to show up. Bylsma was scheduled to address the media at 11 a.m. and hoped to tell them Iginla was playing. But everything was still in limbo. The team delayed Bylsma’s media talk in anticipation of the gear’s arrival.

The final piece of the puzzle came together when a local FedEx employee grabbed Iginla’s equipment and stick bag. Instead of putting it on a truck, the normal routine, he loaded the gear into his own car and personally drove to CONSOL Energy Center.

With the gear's arrival, Iginla tells the media that he will be playing vs. NY Islanders in a few hours.

Penguins equipment manager Dana Heinze hustled to the Trib Total Media gate to meet him. The handoff was made. Heinze fought through the gathering crowd of Penguins fans with a Calgary Flames equipment and stick bag.

It was a few minutes past 11 a.m. when Heinze informed Bylsma and Iginla that he had the equipment. Thus, Iginla’s debut became official.

“It barely just got there,” Iginla said. “I wasn’t sure I was playing until couple hours before.”

The Penguins announced to the gathering media that Iginla would be making his debut within hours. Word quickly spread. Penguins fans everywhere celebrated without realizing the frantic events that took place behind the scenes to make it possible.

And without the efforts of FedEx, it may never have happened.

“FedEx is built on the foundation of going above and beyond for our customers, and our people are at the core of making each experience outstanding as this one,” said Henry Maier, executive vice president, FedEx Ground. “We are a proud partner of the Pittsburgh Penguins and were thrilled to have the opportunity to help make this critical delivery.”

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