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The Great Iginla He is Calgary's secret superstar, the sweetheart of the Stanley Cup finals and maybe the game's best player. But can Jarome Iginla rescue the NHL?

May 31, 2004
May 31, 2004

Table of Contents
May 31, 2004

NBA Playoffs

The Great Iginla He is Calgary's secret superstar, the sweetheart of the Stanley Cup finals and maybe the game's best player. But can Jarome Iginla rescue the NHL?

The family name, in the Yoruba language of his Nigerian
forebears, means big tree. When it is penned onto a Calgary
Flames jersey, it means the world. There are a million
feel-good stories about Jarome Iginla, the rightwinger who took
a moribund franchise and dragged it into the Stanley Cup
finals, which began this week, and here are two. ¶ Iginla story
number 1: Last January he gladly autographed one of his jerseys
and offered it as the prize in a Shaw Cable TV company raffle
to benefit the family of company maintenance technician Jack
Wylie. The sweater drew $1,500 in raffle sales, and Wylie used
the money to buy a more comfortable bed for his wife, Trudy,
allowing her to reduce her pain medication as she fought
multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer of the bone marrow.
"Jarome means everything to me," Trudy says. "He's inspired me
so much. I look at him on TV, and I want to say, 'Thank you.'"
She is feeling better now. Her cancer is in remission.

This is an article from the May 31, 2004 issue

Iginla story number 2: On the eve of Game 7 of the Flames'
first-round playoff series against the Canucks, Iginla and some
teammates walked into an Italian restaurant in Vancouver. A
wedding party was in progress. As the players were leaving a few
hours later, 3 1/2-year-old Brayden Cameron, a Flames fan,
hollered from his booster seat, "Bye, Iggy." (This is Canada. Of
course a 3 1/2-year-old would know Iginla.) The player approached
the boy, dandled him on his knee and talked hockey, signed
autographs and posed for pictures with everyone in the party.
"This was before a big game, and no one would have thought
anything if he had just left," says Al Patterson, Brayden's
grandfather, "but he seemed to have all the time in the world."

O.K. But can he do something really big, like raise the profile
of the NHL in the U.S.? "Wow, I don't know about that," Iginla
says. "I think hockey's doing pretty well, but it would be nice
to be part of making the game more popular."

These are parlous times for the sport. Iginla can't prevent a
lockout. He can't sweet-talk NBC into paying next season's rights
fees up front. He can't ring every doorbell in the U.S. and ask
residents to watch the Cup finals between the Flames and the
Tampa Bay Lightning. But if this All-Star forward with commanding
skill and an implacable will helps make Calgary the most
improbable NHL champion in almost 20 years, he might do something
that no one in hockey has done since Wayne Gretzky retired in
1999: Make you tune in.

As Gretzky always did and Mario Lemieux did in his prime and Mark
Messier did early on with the Rangers, Iginla is a player capable
of taking hockey beyond the purview of NHL cities. He could play
in Peoria, have a Q rating in Albuquerque. He could be a smidgen
of Tiger Woods in pads, a dash of Freddy Adu in skates. While the
Lightning is a seductive offensive team with three world-class
forwards--Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier and Brad
Richards--Iginla has not only the game but also the backstory,
the personality and the character to nudge the NHL toward a more
prosperous future.

Although he has more goals over the past three seasons than
anyone else--tying for the NHL lead with 41 this season and then
scoring another 10 through three playoff rounds--Iginla will not
win you over with gaudy numbers. Pinball hockey is dead.
Goals-against averages are lower than the price of a gallon of
gasoline. Rather, Iginla's game has a visceral attraction, a
noble intractability that makes this 26-year-old son of a
Nigerian father and an American mother the quintessential
Canadian hockey player. He is a nightly candidate for a Gordie
Howe hat trick: a goal, an assist and a fight. He had dustups
with the Canucks' Mattias Ohlund in the first round and with the
Detroit Red Wings' Derian Hatcher in the second. In the Western
Conference finals he went after the San Jose Sharks' Scott Hannan
and Brad Stuart, two other formidable defensemen. The
commentators were unanimous in their approval: Iginla doesn't
pick his spots. They were wrong. Iginla absolutely picks his
spots, challenging only the biggest, roughest and best opponents.

"I remember [Detroit winger Brendan] Shanahan and Iginla had a
pretty good fight two years ago," Red Wings coach Dave Lewis
says. "Then Iginla scores three goals. He gets it done, no matter
what it takes."

Playing with teammates who possess a lower profile than D.B.
Cooper--"Really, we have only one guy other teams worry about
checking," says self-aware winger Shean Donovan--Iginla has done
everything in the playoffs except grow a decent beard. He set up
the winning goals in the last two games against top-seeded
Detroit, and he created Martin Gelinas's overtime winner in Game
7 against the Canucks. Iginla, who also scored twice that night
in Vancouver, had game-winning points in half of Calgary's 12
playoff wins heading into the finals. He opened the scoring in
Game 5 against San Jose with a short-handed breakaway and scored
the first goal in Game 6, the clincher, by resuscitating a power
play that had been a pitiable 8 for 80 in the playoffs.

Throughout this display of brilliance, Iginla formed an almost
mystical connection with Philadelphia Flyers captain Keith
Primeau, who, a few time zones away, seemingly matched every
surpassing Iginla moment with one of his own. Primeau has evolved
from biggest-kid-in-the-class power forward to a superb leader,
but he does not have Iginla's muscular shot or his overdrive
speed or--after a 2-1 Game 7 loss in Tampa last Saturday--a
chance at the Cup. "Primeau's a big guy who's awfully hard to
stop," Tampa Bay associate coach Craig Ramsay says. "Iginla's
quicker, and he's more of a shooter. He gets it away quick and
shoots it hard. We have to make sure to get in front of him so he
always has to shoot through someone, but it's tough because they
do a good job of moving him around. He knows how to find seams."

With Lemieux unable to stay healthy, Peter Forsberg almost surely
going back to Sweden and Jaromir Jagr enjoying his condo on Mars,
Iginla may be more than the NHL's most compelling player. He may
be the best. "You can argue who's the best player," Calgary
defenseman Andrew Ference says, "but there's no doubt Jarome's
the best role model. He's a superstar because of his talent. But
beyond that, his greatest asset is his work ethic. I played with
Mario and Jaromir, and they had talent the rest of us could only
dream of. But by the way Jarome made himself great, by his
willingness to fight through the challenges, he makes it seem
that greatness isn't beyond our reach. That's part of what makes
Jarome special. That, and who he is as a person."

Iginla smiles easily, thanks checkout clerks, supports charities,
puts the team first and takes care of his mother, Susan
Schuchard. She is an Oregonian who moved with her family to
Alberta and later married Elvis Iginla, a Nigerian immigrant who
is now a lawyer in Edmonton. They divorced before Jarome was two,
and Susan's parents helped raise the boy while she worked
multiple jobs in Edmonton. Now she's a year away from an
education degree at the University of Alberta. (Jarome pays the
tuition.) "As far as his altruism [goes], I don't even hear about
it most of the time," Susan says. "I didn't even know he was a
spokesman for juvenile diabetes until I read it."

There is a wonderful story here, but few in the U.S. know about
Iginla, who plays on a team from a Canadian city of 900,000, a
team that had missed the NHL playoffs for seven straight years
and was hardly ever on television in the U.S. Before the 2004
playoffs Calgary had appeared on ESPN2 only 11 times and ESPN
once since Iginla's rookie season of 1996-97. That's a month's
worth of exposure for the Red Wings-Avalanche-Flyers axis. Nor
has Iginla, a star on Canada's Olympic gold medal team in Salt
Lake City, made an impact in the U.S. beyond the confines of the
rink. He has appeared on MuchMusic in Canada but not on MTV. He
has been featured in Maclean's, the Canadian newsweekly, but not
in Time. On Black Entertainment Television but not on CBS. The
publicity-starved NHL has been trying to arrange a satellite
hookup with Oprah this week. "I'd be pretty nervous," Iginla
says. "My family loves Oprah."

"He's in the Tiger Woods mold, someone who could bring more
African-Americans to the game," says Marc Ganis, president of
Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports consulting firm. "But as
good a player and story as he is, as long as he's in Calgary, he
won't be a [U.S.] national figure. For players in small markets,
especially in a Canadian market, it's almost impossible. He's not
Gretzky."

Even the Great One, who gained his fame and his four Stanley Cups
in Edmonton, didn't truly elevate hockey in the U.S. until he
took his personal klieg light to Los Angeles in 1988. If Gretzky
could be traded, any player has a price tag. But after fretting
annually that his high salary (currently $7.5 million) might
force the cost-conscious Flames to move him, Iginla looks like a
big tree with deep roots. Calgary wants to keep him, and he wants
to stay. The only thing that could make Iginla happier than
remaining in Calgary is winning a Stanley Cup there.

If the Flames wind up parading the Cup down Calgary's 17th
Avenue, the Red Mile, next week, Trudy Wylie promises to tug a
baseball cap over her bald scalp and go down to party as if it
were 1989, the last time the Flames won the NHL title. Says
Iginla, "I hope I see her."

For more NHL coverage, including mid-series reports on the
finals, go to si.com/hockey/nhl/specials/playoffs/2004.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DAVID E. KLUTHOCOLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF AL PATTERSON SMALL KINDNESS On the eve of a big game, Iginla took time out for his fan Brayden, 3 1/2.COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA POWER PLAYER With eight goals and 17 points in the postseason, Richards sparks the Lightning's second line.COLOR PHOTO: JEFF CHIU/AP; BRENDON DLOUHYCOLOR PHOTO: EDMONTON SUN/CP (INSET) IGGY'S POP Iginla, who had the series-turning goals against the Sharks (top), gave Elvis a lift for passing the bar in 1999.

FINALS ANALYSIS: BEST IS YET TO COME
SI's Pierre McGuire breaks down the Lightning-Flames matchup and
sees it going to the limit

FORWARDS Tampa Bay gets the job done with skill and speed. The
Lightning creates a lot of odd-man rushes and manufactures
chances off turnovers better than any other team in the league.
Tampa Bay's second line of Brad Richards, Fredrik Modin and Cory
Stillman can score as often as the first line of Vincent
Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Ruslan Fedotenko, so Calgary
will have a hard time matching up. The Flames rely on their top
line of Craig Conroy, Jarome Iginla and Martin Gelinas to do the
bulk of the scoring, and they hope that a speed line of Marcus
Nilson, Shean Donovan and Ville Nieminen will chip in. Calgary
creates most of its offensive chances with robust forechecking
that can pin opposing defensemen to the back boards. Edge:
Lightning

DEFENSEMEN Calgary has one of the NHL's best young defenders in
24-year-old Robyn Regehr. He has great size (6'3", 225 pounds),
range and puckhandling skills--as well as a very useful mean
streak. Regehr can handle a lot of ice time, as can the Flames'
other top blueliners, Andrew Ference, 25, and Jordan Leopold, 23.
The strength of Calgary's defense is that it doesn't give any
free passes physically. Tampa Bay uses Pavel Kubina and Darryl
Sydor as its top tandem but relies on all defenders to execute in
crucial situations. While the Lightning plays aggressively in the
neutral zone, it tends to sag while defending in its own end and
sometimes allows dangerous shots from the point. Edge: Flames

GOALTENDING Nikolai Khabibulin of Tampa Bay and Miikka Kiprusoff
of Calgary are acrobatic. They have superb glove hands and make
big saves at key times. Kiprusoff is better at handling the puck,
but that strength will largely be negated because Tampa Bay
generates most of its chances off the rush rather than by moving
the puck around the boards. Edge: Even

SPECIAL TEAMS In the Eastern Conference finals the Lightning
dominated the Philadelphia Flyers in this area, and it has a
lopsided advantage over Calgary. The Flames can't afford to get
into penalty trouble and will need their superb penalty killer,
Stephane Yelle, to excel. Watch for Brad Richards to be explosive
on the Lightning's power play. Edge: Lightning

COACHING Tampa Bay's John Tortorella coaches on sheer emotion and
makes his feelings evident on the bench. Calgary's Darryl Sutter,
who has also done an excellent job as general manager, shows his
emotions to his players only behind closed doors. Tortorella has
rid the Lightning franchise of its country-club atmosphere and
established organizational control. His top associate, Craig
Ramsay, is a terrific X's-and-O's guy, especially on special
teams. Slight Edge: Lightning

PREDICTION This series will have it all: big hits, creative
offense, sharp goaltending and, adding to the fireworks, rabid
fans. This could be the best finals in years. Lightning in seven.

"By the way JAROME MADE HIMSELF GREAT, he makes it seem that
greatness isn't beyond our reach."