Never one to be easily impressed, Darryl Sutter uses plenty of superlatives when asked about Jarome Iginla.
Happy to interrupt work on his Viking, Alta. farm for a chat about his longtime captain in Calgary, Sutter’s praise is spread evenly between the player and the man.
“You want to pick a perfect player in all aspects of the game – on the ice, off it and training – he was the whole deal,” Sutter said.
“He’s an awesome man and great human being. He was a guy who cared about his team and winning and was such a great family guy through it all. His character was off the charts.”
On Wednesday, the Hockey Hall of Fame’s selection committee will announce its class of 2020, which will undoubtedly be headlined by Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla.
It has been three years since he left the building, opening the door for the ultimate crowning of a career that saw the 42-year-old native of St. Albert, Alta. win everything in hockey except a Stanley Cup, which he fell one game short of.
Along the way, one of the game’s last great power forwards won two Memorial Cups, a World Junior championship, an NHL scoring crown, two Rocket Richard Trophies and two Olympic golds as part of a career that included 625 goals and 1300 points in 20 NHL seasons.
If, somehow, the numbers and titles don’t make him a cinch, his character certainly does.
Not only is Iginla the type of lad you’d want your daughter to marry, he’s a man you’d proudly showcase in the sport’s most esteemed club.
“I remember walking in Chicago and there was a homeless guy and Jarome gave him whatever he had in is pocket,” said former Flames line mate, Martin Gelinas.
“He is a kind, giving person, whether it’s to charities or to people. The first time I realized how interactive he was with people one-on-one was when he was talking to a fan one day and I needed a quick answer on something. He was locked in. When he talked to that person he made them feel special.”
Craig Conroy, Iginla’s longtime line mate and running mate, saw those interactions with a regularity he joked was annoying – especially when the team bus had to wait for him to sign every last autograph.
“It’s not like he did it once – he did it every day,” Conroy said when asked about that and the legendary story regarding Iginla’s efforts to find and pay for accommodations for fans he ran into at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.
“If he thought somebody needed a meal, he just bought it. It’s like, ‘Now I feel bad – I need to do more myself.’”
Conroy said Iginla would quietly buck up if the rookie dinners got a little too expensive, and was always the one to pay for rounds of beer or golf with the lads.
“That was his personality,” Conroy said. “My wife’s cousin passed away and he happened to be at our lake house in New York shortly after that and out of nowhere he pulled out his cheque book. Why he even had one was beyond me. But he put a cheque in their fund for the kids. That’s just Jarome.”
Beloved in Calgary, where he carried the Flames on his back to Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup final, Iginla became a national hero when he scored two goals to clinch Canada’s first Olympic gold in 50 years, followed eight years later by his pass to Sidney Crosby for the Golden Goal.
“He’s done everything you can do in this game, not only on the ice but off the ice,” said Gelinas, an assistant coach with the Flames who is another one of the game’s great guys.
“There are people you work with and say, ‘He was a good player but as a person he’s just okay.’ But he’s the ultimate poster boy for the NHL, and is just a person you like to be around all the time because he’s so nice. He was charismatic in interviews, too. When you said something that triggers him in a positive way, his face would light up with that smile.”
That grin made him an easy choice for companies looking to align with his ‘aw shucks’ approach, and it helped elevate the profile of charities like KidSport Calgary, which Iginla personally gave over $700,000 to by way of a donation for every goal.
“I had Jarome as a young player and young captain and superstar in Calgary, and I had him at the end of his career in L.A., and his character never changed – it hadn’t diminished,” said Sutter, who was particularly touched by the way Iginla befriended his son Chris, who has Down syndrome.
“He was a great teammate and great guy to coach, and at the end it was more of a friendship than anything else.”
A Hall of Famer in every sense.
Tasked with facing the media every day through some lean years in Calgary, Iginla never shirked his responsibilities and always took the high road.
Standing in the middle of a massive media scrum during the Flames’ run to the Cup final in 2004, Iginla somehow noticed I couldn’t get anywhere near him for quotes. I moved on to talk to other players before getting a tap on the shoulder from Iginla.
“Sorry, I saw that you couldn’t get in there – did you need anything from me?”
Wow. That just doesn’t happen with a superstar athlete who had already answered every dumb question us ink-stained wretches could throw his way that night.
Raised by his mother and grandparents, Iginla was taught early on to be a gentleman.
“Growing up, you treat people well and good things happen — he really believed that,” Conroy said. “That’s his code. Off the ice, you’re not going to meet a better person.”
On the ice, opponents saw a different side.
“He’s such a genuine person — pretty quiet and reserved…until he gets fired up and engaged emotionally — then the other side of him shows up,” said Brendan Morrison, chuckling as he recalled playing against Iginla for years before becoming a Flames teammate.
“He was a guy you had to key on because he could not only beat you with his goal scoring prowess and offensive abilities, but could change the outcome of a game through his physicality. If things weren’t going well offensively he’d engage someone physically, and he could hurt you.”
A gentle giant, until his thirst for victory could prompt him to drop the mitts or lower the boom with his 6-foot-1, 210-pound frame, one he forever sculpted to adapt to the modern game.
Yet he never crossed the line.
It was that pure heart of his that Sutter remembers seeing broken after their Stanley Cup loss in 2004.
“It’s hard for me to talk about,” Sutter said of a 2-1 loss that earned the Tampa Bay Lightning the Cup.
“When we lost Game 7 in Tampa, him and I were the last guys to walk out to the bus and I was feeling so bad for him because he felt he could have done more. He carried us on his back for two months and still felt he could do more.”
He couldn’t possibly have done more that night, or for the game in general.
And that’s why he’ll be called to the Hall in short order.