Jarome Iginla walked into CONSOL Energy Center on Saturday morning not as a visitor, but as a member of the home team.
It’s the first time in his future Hall of Fame career that’s happened, as the now 35-year-old Iginla had been in Calgary ever since making his NHL debut for the Flames at just 18 years old in the 1996 Stanley Cup playoffs.
That’s the closest comparison Iginla could make to what this morning was like for him, his debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins after being acquired by the team in a trade early Thursday morning.
Iginla went through his pre-game routine in an unfamiliar building, put on his equipment in a stall between James Neal and Tanner Glass and walked onto the ice in front of his new fans fourth-to-last in line, ahead of Craig Adams, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Iginla watched as his new headshot with him in a Penguins jersey flashed onto the videoboard as he was announced in the starting lineup; then stood on the blue line during the national anthem before the puck dropped and he was off.
“You know what, I was trying to think of it and the closest thing to it is my first game,” Iginla said of the morning. “You’re literally all the way back to when you were 18 and you’re trying to stay calm. We had an afternoon game then, too, and you’re trying not to be too excited or too nervous. Then I tell myself, oh, I’ve played lots of games, just relax. But it’s different. It is. Pulling the jersey on for the first time and going out for warmups, I was trying to stay out of people’s ways, too, you know (laughs). I was trying to learn the routines. It feels great to come here and just be part of a win. Just keep rolling.”
Iginla didn’t have to play, as he didn’t arrive in Pittsburgh until late last night after dealing with immigration issues after the trade. He wasn’t able to get a practice in with his new team to try and learn unfamiliar systems and teammates. But despite all of that, he just wanted to get this new chapter of his legendary career started as quickly as possible.
Iginla, a right-handed shot who has played right wing for the majority of his career, was slotted in at left wing alongside Malkin and Neal for the opening faceoff. However, despite his best efforts, Iginla found himself drifting over to his usual side early in the game – which Neal didn't mind.
“I think (Neal) was feeling bad for me in the first,” Iginla laughed. “I was a little lost as far as left wing and trying to adjust to different stuff. He was trying to make it easier on me and was just going to switch me back. But as it went on, we switched back and kind of felt more comfortable. But yeah, it was nice of him in the first. Lots was happening quickly. You want to do good things out there, but you’re also trying to stay out of trouble and help the guys out.”
As the game went on, Iginla got increasingly comfortable – and it showed. In the second period, he set Neal up with a perfect pass right on the tape and Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov out of position – but his shot went wide. In the third period, Iginla, Malkin and Neal had an extended shift in the offensive zone, working it along the boards and playing keep-a-way with the scrambling Islanders.
“I did feel more comfortable,” Iginla said. “In the first, you’re trying to adjust and be good. ‘Nealer’ and ‘Geno’ were flying and you’re trying to process it. It was different, you know? It was great. It was exciting. But it was hard to calm the excitement and the nerves and all that. So as it went on, started to feel a little bit better. But it’s a treat to play with those two guys, for sure.
“Both of them are such big forces down there. You just try to get the puck to them down low, try to go to the net for them, create some space.”
For his part, Neal couldn’t be more excited to have Iginla on his line and on his team.
“You can’t say enough about him,” Neal said. “He was a guy I watched when I was growing up and now I’m sitting beside him in the locker room and playing with him. So talking to him a lot out there, he’s going to get used to our systems and he’s going to be a huge help to us.”
After that aforementioned-missed shot by Neal, he went to the bench after the play and talked to Iginla – who gave him a big smile and a tap on the helmet.
That’s the kind of guy Iginla is, a quality human being – “one of the top human beings you’ll ever meet,” said Brenden Morrow – beloved and revered throughout the league. Iginla’s not just a seven-time NHL All-Star, a 500-goal and 1,000-point scorer and a two-time Olympic gold medalist – he’s a leader. Chris Kunitz put it best when he said “it’s going to be great to have him on the ice, but maybe even better to have him in the locker room.”
But that being said, Iginla just wants to fit in with the group that’s here as seamlessly as possible.
“They’ve got a great team here and obviously great chemistry and great leadership with the group of guys they have, starting with Sid,” Iginla said. “I’m just coming to fit in and to come and work hard with them and compete. They obviously are going really well, and whatever my role is or whatever as far as ice time or position or anything, it’s I’m happy to do whatever.”
Yes, leaders like Iginla are competitors. He came close to winning the Stanley Cup with the Flames, going to the Final in 2004, but has yet to raise it over his head – virtually the only accomplishment he has yet to achieve in his legendary career. That’s why he’s here, and that’s what he’s going to try his hardest to help the team do here in Pittsburgh.
“I’m not as young as I once was,” he said. “Every year that goes by you just want to win more and more and be a part of it. Leaving Calgary – which has been home for a long time and I’ve enjoyed playing there – when you leave you want to really have a great crack to win and I think they have that here. It’s great to join.”
And it’s great to have him.