March 7, 2014

From NEHJ: Iggy sets sights on a Stanley spring

By Jesse Connolly

Prior to the Olympic break, Jarome Iginla had 43 points and ranked sixth in the NHL with a plus-25 rating. (Getty Images)

One could argue it always has been, but NHL hockey nowadays is by and large a young man’s game.

As a veteran of more than 1,300 regular-season and playoff games, Jarome Iginla knows his days of youth are well behind him. He recognizes that a new generation of stars is coming into its own. Part of that process involves those blossoming players taking on key roles for their respective countries at the Winter Olympics, subsequently bumping out players like Iginla who have spent their entire adult lives representing their nation every four years on the big stage.

On Feb. 28, 2010, a then-32-year-old Iginla was in Vancouver capturing his second gold medal, in what was his third appearance as a member of Team Canada at the Winter Games. Hockey fans across the globe heard center Sidney Crosby shout “Iggy,” calling for a pass from Iginla that would earn the latter the primary assist on the game-winning, tournament-clinching goal in overtime against the United States.

On Feb. 20, 2014, Iginla, now 36, stood near the entranceway of the Bruins’ dressing room, following the team’s first practice since the Olympic break began 11 days prior. He proudly wore a black Team Canada warm-up jacket, recounting his days on the international stage and discussing what it’s like to simply be a spectator now.

“You watch it on TV. I just watched the last couple days and saw highlights,” the future Hall of Fame forward said. “At the time, you get competitive and you want to be part of it, and you remember how much fun the Olympics are to be involved in. But at the same time, I’ve enjoyed the break.

“I can’t wait to get back to playing and it’s nice to get back here and be back on the ice, but I think it’ll be beneficial, mentally, just to recharge. It’s going to go quick. Once April comes, it’s pretty much all playoff talk. I’ve enjoyed the break and it’s been good physically and mentally.”

While the Stanley Cup Final-esque nature of the Olympics can be a physical grind — as proven by every NHL organization’s prayers that all of its participants come back Stateside in one piece — Iginla also weighed in on how mentally taxing the experience can be.

“Sometimes you come back from the Olympics, especially when you move on as it gets more intense, it’s all about controlling the nerves and the stresses and stuff,” he said. “You get back and you’ve been through a lot. Sometimes it takes a little time to regroup and get going again. Some guys have no problem with it, but I find physically it feels like the playoffs, those games, so it’s a little bit different. I enjoyed playing in them, but at the same time, I’ve enjoyed this break, too.”

While it’s clear that a player with plenty of mileage on his tires could use a reprieve from the day-to-day grind, Iginla was certainly heating up before the 17-day hiatus began. The B’s first-line winger was named one of the NHL’s three stars of the week prior to the break, which he headed into with 14 points in his last eight games.

“I feel a lot better, yeah,” said Iginla, who had four goals through 24 games but sat on 17 tallies and 43 points at the 57-game mark. “I feel a lot more relaxed. I feel good to get out there.”

The six-time NHL All-Star explained how his increased on-ice success has been affected by an increased comfort level off it.

“I do feel a lot more comfortable,” said Iginla, who spent the first 1,229 games of his career in a Flames uniform before being traded to Pittsburgh last spring, and then signing a one-year deal with Boston this past offseason. “The guys have been great since I’ve been here, to all of us new guys. I think it’s just a matter of feeling comfortable, just to feel like you know where to grab the small things and all the everyday stuff. It feels more normal. It’s like home.

“It takes a little bit of time. I’ve talked to guys that I’ve played with over the years that have been traded and also moved to different places, and they always say that. You don’t really think it’s going to be, but it’s different.”

After losing to the Bruins while a member of the Penguins in the conference finals last spring, Iginla signed a one-year deal with Boston. (Getty Images)

Part of that acclimation process for the father of three has included getting his kids involved in local hockey programs. You can color the Alberta native impressed by what the Boston area has to offer.

“Moving here to Boston and getting to see my kids play minor hockey, I was really impressed with that, too,” he said. “Coming from Calgary and Canada, you have good minor hockey, and you think, ‘Well, they should do well (in the U.S.).’ It’s pretty neat to see how competitive it is here and see how passionate the kids are and their families are. But you can see why. As a hockey fan, it’s nice to see hockey grow in the States and, being from Canada, just seeing the battles.”

Of course, part of Iginla’s success also stems from the two forwards he hops over the boards and goes into battle with on a nightly basis.

“I’ve been very fortunate to play with a lot of good players and guys who bring a lot of different things,” Iginla, who notched career assist No. 600 in February, said when asked about linemates Milan Lucic and David Krejci. “They’re strong, they’re competitive and they’re very well-rounded. There’s not just onedimension to their games.

“I think the big thing with playing with them is playing D and being five men, but not having to spend a lot of time in our zone, and to be able to put pressure on the other zone. It adds up. The more we have the puck, the better you feel, the more confident you feel. You’re not chasing people around in your own zone and on your heels. They can score, they can hit. They’re just complete players.”

While Iginla benefits from flanking two players who play complete games, both Lucic and Krejci have gained plenty from having an individual with the skill, experience and work ethic that Iginla possesses on their line.

“I think he’s helped,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said. “I know Looch looks up to Iggy quite a bit. … Any time you get a Hall of Famer there that plays the way Iggy plays every night, those guys look up to it.”

Iginla’s used to being looked up to. The two-time 50-goal scorer spent nearly a decade as captain in Calgary. Adjusting to a role without the ‘C’ and the responsibilities that come along with it has been anything but difficult in Boston.

“No, no, I don’t find it weird. Coming here, they’ve got a great captain in ‘Z’ (Zdeno Chara) and also other guys that are great leaders,” Iginla said. “They do it together. Bergy (Patrice Bergeron), Krejci, Soup (Gregory Campbell), Thorty (Shawn Thornton), Kells (Chris Kelly), there’s all different guys.

“As a group, there’s not just pressure on ‘Z’. Everybody’s a good professional. It’s a tight group that pushes each other and also themselves to be prepared and stuff. It’s been great that way. They’ve been successful here for a number of years, so they have what they do. You just come, you know where you’re supposed to be and go, and it’s been nice.”

The same can be said of Iginla’s role on the ice. It’s in stark contrast to his final days as a Flame, when even his most Herculean efforts weren’t enough to help Calgary qualify for the postseason in his last three springs with the club.

“It’s been awesome being able to come and have some success with this group,” Iginla said. “At this point, a lot of times of the year, we’ve been chasing or right in that dog fight. It’s a different pressure. We still put pressure on ourselves to be good, but it’s different when you’re trying to stay at the top or get all the way to the top. It’s different than when you’re just trying to stay alive. It’s been a lot of fun to have a different perspective and just win some more games.”

Winning is all Iginla is concerned with at this point of his career. That’s why he left Calgary, a place where he was infinitely beloved.

He’s had the honor of wearing the ‘C’ and being a franchise’s go-to guy. He’s won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer on two occasions. He helped his country win two gold medals. He’s checked off milestone after milestone.

There’s just one immeasurably important career goal left to accomplish for the B’s eldest forward.

“I plan on being a part of a championship and I believe we can do that here,” Iginla, who inked a one-year deal with the Bruins, told the New York Times. “That’s how I’m looking at it. That it’s going to come.”

As he carries on in that quest, Iginla’s made it clear that, wise old man or not, he still loves showing up to the rink just as much as he did as a wide-eyed, 19-year-old rookie back in 1996 in Calgary.

“I’m just thankful to keep playing as long as I have and I’m having a great time,” the veteran of 17 NHL seasons said. “It’s awesome to be here with these guys.”

This article originally appeared in the March 2014 issue of New England Hockey Journal.

Twitter: @JesseNEHJ