By Larry Wigge
Jarome Iginla, like Ray Bourque before him, is the best player in the NHL not to win a Stanley Cup.
He is everyman's hero? You could say that he the closest thing to Tiger Woods in the NHL. Big. Strong. Handsome. Quotable. Divergent. Powerful. Magnetic and charismatic personality.
And being from Edmonton, he knows of the struggles and eventual success the Oilers, who were in the midst of an incredible run of four Stanley Cups. They boasted some of the NHL’s greatest players, including Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr.
All were perennial All-Stars, partly because Jarome and his friends would grab all the ballots they could find and vote again and again for their hometown heroes.
You could say that Iginla has become what is today's Oilers -- the Pittsburgh Penguins, with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang. The Penguins only Stanley Cup came in 2008 ... but they have become solid contenders every year with their immense talent.
GM Ray Shero capped off the Pittsburgh roster with the acquisitions of Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray, Iginla and Jussi Jokinen before the NHL trading deadline in May.
"We're all in. We want to win," Shero said after the deals were made.
On the ice, he scored 525 goals and 1,095 points, won awards, represented his country internationally and won a pair of Olympic gold medals in 2002 and 2010. When you heard his name, you automatically thought of hockey and Calgary.
There were many ways in which Jarome Iginla could have looked forward to his new life with the Pittsburgh Penguins, but the analogy he chose was interesting.
"The way I'm trying to view it is, it's kind of like going to a Team Canada thing or an Olympics thing, where you're ready for any role," Iginla said of his deal with Pittsburgh for a first-round pick in 2013, plus the rights to college players Kenneth Agostino and Ben Hanowski for Iginla, the league's fifth-leading active scorer. "That's where I'm at and that's what I'm going to draw on ... and be ready to play hard and have fun.
"You always want to win, that's what we're made to do and what we want to do," said Iginla, who noted how quickly the first 16 years of his career zipped past. With each passing season, Iginla noted: "You definitely feel a little more urgency to win."
The closest Jarome Iginla came the winning the Stanley Cup was on 2004 -- Game 7 between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Flames -- won by the Lighting, 2-1.
You could still tell that Iginla was bothered by the near miss.
"When you get that close and then you hear the other team fan, the other fans celebrating to Simply the Best and We are the Champions, that hurt. It hurt a lot. We didn't know who was holding the Cup, but each time someone else took it, you could hear the fans go nuts. We're just sitting there, soaking all of this in and imagining what it would feel like ... if it was us."
The Flames were THAT close.
"One side of me thinks about how close we were to winning it all," continued Iginla. "But the other of me about playing again and getting another chance to get back. I thought I wanted to win a Stanley Cup before -- and I did -- but it's a whole new level, a whole new passion to get back there ... and win."
The 35-year-old Iginla may be showing signs of age. But two seasons ago, he had 43 goals for the Flames.
He had 14 goals and 19 assists in 44 games for Calgary and Pittsburgh. In 13 games with the Penguins, Iginla's fire was stoked as he for six goals and 11 assists. In the playoffs, Jarome has tallied four goals and eight assists in 11 games.
"I wasn't fully sure what was going on, but I knew Pittsburgh was in the mix with Boston," Iginla said, before he waived the no-trade clause in his contract to go to Pittsburgh instead of Boston. "They're both amazing cities, very successful organizations, and great teams. As far as when it comes down to the choice that I had in one or the other, it's really hard as a player to pass up the opportunity to play on a team with Sid and Malkin and the roll that they're on and the success they had."
The Penguins and the Boston Bruins begin the Eastern Conference finals Saturday in Pittsburgh.
As to his future, Iginla is relaxed. He remains an unrestricted free agent July 1st, and nothing, he stresses, is set in stone.
"My wife and I talk about it all the time," said Iginla. "This is a unique life situation for us, in our experiences. I really have no idea what's ahead. Truly. We don't know what's going to happen and we're fine with that. You saw we sold our house in Calgary. That doesn't mean we'll never live in Calgary again, we just want to be prepared. A lot of questions but, like I said, no real answers.
"The focus right now is on trying to win here, now."
It didn't take off at once.
"The first week here, nothing seemed to go right," Iginla remarked. "I was a little anxious. I'd try to stickhandle with the puck and it'd dribble off into a corner. It was as if I was in a cloud. But it has gotten better and better."
"Talking to a couple of the players who have played with him about the character of the player, there was no doubt in my mind that if there was a chance to try to have this guy, we were going to try to have him," Shero said. "There's only one Jarome Iginla ... this guy's a future Hall of Famer."
There's the question of being the perfect fit. That has been a work in progress.
"He's brought a quiet confidence to our room right off the hop," said coach Dan Bylsma. "He hasn't been a guy who stepped right in and started screaming and yelling and rah-rah. We had some injuries and we had some different lineups and we went on the road and he really developed into a go-to guy on the power play that was a weapon. He has continued to be that for our team.
"It gives us a different dimension to our team that maybe we didn't have before, with that type of shot. He's got a fierce edge that he plays the game with. He has brought that to our team. When you are down there on the ice with him, you certainly know it and see it."
"Easy," said Crosby, when asked how it was for guys like Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray to fit into the Penguins dressing room hierarchy. "It was pretty easy with a guy like [Iginla] with his experience. It says a lot when you bring a lot of guys in like him and it was seamless."
When Bylsma heard what Crosby said ... he amended his comments about Iginla, giving a different side of things.
"You look at his entire career and wonder what kind of individual Jarome is," Bylsma said. "He comes to me after games and wants to know what he can do better. That tells me that he wants to succeed."
For Jarome Iginla, it's all about the team. He wants to win as much as anybody.
He still hears the Tampa Bay crowd in his dreams ... and he wants to win.