He has almost single-handedly led the Calgary Flames out of hockey's wasteland and into the Stanley Cup finals. He has been nominated for the league's most valuable player award twice in three years. And with each clutch goal he has scored this postseason, Jarome Iginla has strengthened his reputation as the game's top player.
A power forward who has been compared to Gordie Howe and Bobby Hull, Iginla is as likely to put the puck in the net as he is to put his fist in an opponent's face. His aggressive style and penchant for scoring are the reasons Calgary is in the playoffs for the first time in eight seasons, and three victories from winning the Stanley Cup.
"This has been something that I have dreamed about since [I was] 7 years old," Iginla said Wednesday after the Flames practiced in Brandon, Fla. "This is the time of my life. It really is."
The shorthanded breakaway goal Iginla scored in the Flames' 4-1 victory over Tampa Bay in Game 1 on Tuesday illustrated the type of player he is: big, fast, skilled, and at his best when the stakes are high. A 6-foot-1, 208-pound right wing who tied for the league lead with 41 goals in the regular season, Iginla has scored a playoff-best 11 goals to push the underdog Flames past division winners in each of the previous three rounds. Iginla's 18 points in the playoffs are second only to Lightning winger Martin St. Louis's 19.
"He's a big, power guy. He's an old-school player," Calgary Coach Darryl Sutter said. "[He] plays a lot of minutes, plays power play, plays penalty killing, plays against big players, plays against skilled players, plays the last minute of a period, plays the first minute of a period."
He also plays for a small-market team. The Flames' captain at 26, Iginla has averaged almost 43 goals the past three years, and scored two goals in Canada's memorable gold medal-clinching victory over the United States in the 2002 Olympics, yet he remains the best athlete in major team sports whom virtually no one in America knows.
At least not yet. Iginla can become a superstar -- on both sides of the border -- if he hoists the Stanley Cup.
Iginla is also the first black captain of an NHL club and it's a role he embraces. Hockey officials hope Iginla can help the game attract crossover fans, much the way Tiger Woods has for golf, at a time when the struggling NHL is desperately trying to expand its fan base, especially among minorities.
"I'd be comfortable in trying to help," Iginla said. "I mean, it's a great game."
Iginla started playing when he was 7 in suburban Edmonton and grew up idolizing Oilers goalie Grant Fuhr and other black players of his youth, such as Claude Vilgrain and Tony McKegney. Iginla is one of 14 black or mixed-race players in the NHL this season. His last name means "big tree" in Yoruba, the language of his father's native Nigeria.
"When I was young, I was the only black player on my team, and I mean, I grew up in Saint Albert, just outside of Edmonton," Iginla said. "I loved Grant Fuhr, and being a minority player, I also followed other black players. It was something that, because being the only black player on my team growing up, I dreamed just like everybody else to be in the NHL.
"When I would say that, some other kids, not trying to be mean, would say, 'Well, there are not that many black players in the NHL.' "
Iginla hopes the success he is having now may lure other blacks to the game.
"I take pride in it and I do think about it," he said. "There're so many more black players for young minorities to look up to in all different positions; great goalies, defensemen, tough guys, scorers, offensive players."
Defenseman Andrew Ference hesitated to compare him to Pittsburgh great Mario Lemieux, the captain of the Penguins when he played there, but said he is beginning to see similarities.
"They both hate to lose," Ference said. "It doesn't matter if you are playing video games with Jarome or cards with Mario, the great ones hate to lose."