Every year, professional sports begin to feel more and more like a cold, calculated business. Ardent sports fans are now amateur accountants, calculating the worth of players based on their output on the field of play balanced with their financial cost. Since 1994, there have been three labour stoppages in the NHL — one of which expired in January — that largely stem from greed on both sides of the negotiating table. In the swamp of contemporary professional sports, it is difficult to find role models. For the past 16 seasons, Calgary was graced with one of the most respectable and forthright athletes in all of professional sports: Jarome Iginla.
In Calgary, Iginla was not well-liked or admired — he was revered and the number 12 was sacrosanct. The accolades that Iginla accrued for the Flames are substantial, including an Art Ross trophy, two Maurice Richard trophies, a Lester B. Pearson Award, 525 goals and 1,095 points. The Stanley Cup eluded Iginla during his stay in Calgary, a factor that weighed heavily in his decision to leave the Flames for greener pastures. However, Iginla’s impact extended far beyond his accomplishments on the ice.
During his time in Calgary, Iginla was gracious with fans, charitably generous and respectful in his approach to the spirit of the game. Since 2000, Iginla has raised more than $700,000 for Kidsport, a local charity that provides underprivileged children with registration funds and equipment to participate in community sports. To raise funds, Iginla donated $2,000 for every goal he scored with the Flames to Kidsport. Iginla also helped found the Jarome Iginla/Cassie Campbell non-profit hockey school which has raised funds for charities such as Oxfam, Doctors Without Borders and STARS Air Ambulance since.
What is perhaps most captivating about Iginla was the stark contrast between his gentle, cordial demeanor in the public eye and the intense passion he employed during games. Despite the controversy over fighting, there is no doubt that Iginla’s readiness to drop the gloves endeared him to fans and teammates. Iginla did not simply play with passion, he challenged others to play with passion as well. In addition to possessing leadership characteristics, Iginla was often the most dangerous offensive player on the ice as well, a true team captain in every sense.
When Iginla’s name is mentioned by those outside Calgary, the most consistent adjective is classy. Perhaps the best example of Iginla’s class was on April 5, 2008 during long-time Vancouver Canuck Trevor Linden’s final game in Vancouver. It was the final game of the regular season and the Flames beat the Canucks 7–1 with Iginla scoring his 50th goal of the season in the process. After the game, Iginla coaxed his entire team out of the dressing room to shake Linden’s hand and congratulate him on his career, stunning the Vancouver crowd. Iginla is a fierce competitor and a nasty opponent but also the epitome of sportsmanship.
When Iginla was dealt to the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 27, all of Calgary felt the sting of his departure. The overwhelming sentiment — apart from those underwhelmed with the value fetched for Iginla from the Penguins — was gratitude. Fans spilled onto social media sites and radio call-in shows with the need to publicly express their thanks to Iginla for his time in Calgary. Objectively, thanking professional athletes is a bizarre concept as Iginla did not play for free and did not score goals solely for charitable reasons. What makes Iginla different is the fact that he communicated his gratitude so clearly in a sports landscape rife with avarice and entitlement.
Largely due to the pressure — deserved or not — placed on athletes by fans, professional athletes can develop corrosive attitudes towards some fans, members of the media or their teammates. Iginla demonstrates that one can play hard, be exorbitantly compensated for their labour and still treat others with respect and decency.
There are countless testimonies of Iginla’s interaction with the public floating around Calgary. What is unequivocally true is Iginla’s kindness to younger fans at games themselves. There were many times — especially during periods when the Flames were truly horrid — when Iginla routinely stayed to sign each and every piece of merchandise thrust towards him by young boys and girls. Those moments turn children into lifelong fans of the team and the game itself. The NHL could use a few more of those moments these days.
Thanks Iggy, now go win that cup.