Much like the football Hall of Fame, just about anyone gets into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Play in the league long enough, be kind to the writers, and gain any sort of rep for grit or toughness, and you’ll probably get in. Which cheapens the entry of those who are truly generational players. Those who deserve the hockey world’s eyes all to themselves for a night or two.
Then again, Jarome Iginla is probably tired of standing alone, and may rejoice at finally sharing a stage with players on his level. Which are rare.
It’s hard to remember, or think of Iginla as having played for five teams in his career. Because everyone will only think of Iginla not just as a Calgary Flame, but as THE Calgary Flames. And that’s not just because he was the best player in franchise history by a mile, or that he became a pillar of the community, or that he’s everyone’s favorite player in Calgary and everyone’s favorite player who didn’t play for the team they root for. Without Iginla, the Flames would have been irrelevant for decades. They would be the Anaheim Ducks or Florida Panthers or Ottawa Senators. When you say he was the team, it was because he had to do it all himself.
Iginla is the Flames’ all-time leader in points and goals. Second in goals is Theo Fleury, who is 164 goals behind him. Fleury is also second in franchise history in points, 265 behind Iggy. Compounding all of this is Iginla never played regularly with anyone else at the top of the list, until Mark Giordano in ninth for the last six of his 16 seasons in Calgary. To find a franchise great who was on the same line with him, you have to go down to Craig Conroy (!) in 22nd all-time. Putting “Craig Conroy” and “great” in the same vicinity takes several crowbars and blow torches.
The one Flames team, the only Iginla team, to get Iggy anywhere close to a Cup was the 2004 version, and that’s a great example of just how much it was Iginla and Iginla alone. The powerful right winger had 41 goals and 73 points that year. No one else on the team had more than 18 goals or 47 points. When Iggy put up another 50 goals in 2007-2008, the next best forwards on the team were Kristian Huselius and Daymond Langkow. Fine players, but wouldn’t be able to approach Iginla’s level if you strapped them to Voyager 2.
Popular hockey thought loves to downgrade a player when they never won a Cup, the playoffs seen as a crucible that only the truly great can navigate and those that don’t are defined as lacking. Which makes it truly funny when those people will tell you that hockey is the ultimate team sport and no one can do it alone. These things never have to square in the hockey mind.
But no one could hang the label of failure on Iginla. He was too good, too forceful. He rose above those labels. He was the definition of a power forward, and early in his career he had to be. Iggy came to the league in the depths of its Dead Puck Era, having to fight through talentless goobers who could only clutch and grab and tackle and were never called for it. Iginla piled up 216 goals between 1998 and 2004, the absolute dregs of mud hockey, only outscored by Jaromir Jagr and Markus Naslund. Not only did Iginla have to fight through the trenches and wire of the clutch-and-grab time of hockey, but he had to create and finish his own chances. What Russell Westbrook was doing during his MVP year, Iginla had to do on ice a decade or two before.
It wasn’t just that Iginla could run over three guys on his way to the net or dig himself out of the corner while greatly outnumbered before his hands took over to score, or that his slap shot ripped a hole in time itself. It was that he had to.
To define Iginla only through his goals is hardly fair, because it doesn’t convey the true force he could be. You can’t find a Flames fan who doesn’t have tears rolling down their face recalling “The Shift” from Game 5 in the 2004 Cup Final, which won it and gave the Flames a chance to win a Cup at home (and some would tell you they very much did). There is no better distillation of the pure power and fury Iginla played with that turned every opponent into mere scenery and his stone-handed teammates into competence.
While fighting is now viewed as an Neanderthalic anachronism, there isn’t a hockey fan who wouldn’t smile at the thought that Iginla could kick anyone’s ass eight ways to Sunday while barely breathing hard. We’re an odd, nonsensical bunch.
Iginla had to play with that sheer force of will, because without it there was no one else. The Flames would have been up the track every year if he didn’t.
Iginla is more than a player to Calgary, of course. His charity work there is known to every Calgary resident. Stories of the time he made for everyone are innumerable. You can’t find anyone who says a bad word about him. Iginla didn’t just represent a team on the ice. He embodied a whole city as a person.
He’s got two gold medals. He’s got two Rocket Richard trophies (most goals in a season), and an Art Ross Trophy (most points in a season). In the end, he finished with 625 goals and 1300 points. Sadly, even after going ring-chasing with the Penguins, Bruins, Avalanche, and Kings, he doesn’t have one of those. The reason he doesn’t will be clear when he stands on the Hall of Fame stage. It’ll be the rare time he’s amongst anyone on his level.