It was impossible to ignore Jarome Iginla’s genius

Hockey card of Jarome Iginla

There’s so much nuance to hockey that it can sometimes take a while watching a player before any inherent greatness becomes obvious. Watch Pavel Datsyuk or Jonathan Toews for the first time, for example, and their overall prowess might not stand out if they’re not putting the puck in the back of the net.

That was not the case for Jarome Iginla. Watch any game, and his virtuosity seemed to jump off the ice immediately.

I covered Iginla’s first game in Boston as a member of the Bruins. My memory — that he had a somewhat shaky first shift, followed by a dominating second swing through the ice — was confirmed by a column I wrote that night. He lined up on the right wing alongside David Krejci and Milan Lucic, and from that shift on, he was a powerhouse. He didn’t score a goal, but it was impossible to ignore his impact on the game.

He would score 30 goals as a 36-year-old, tying Patrice Bergeron for the team lead, and was a rock on that top line. He more than filled the gap vacated by Nathan Horton and was a tremendous cog on a team that won the President’s Trophy. And with this week’s news that he’s earned induction to the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto in his first year of eligibility, it seems like a good time to look back on that single season in black and gold.

He’ll be remembered for the goals, for sure — 625 in his 20-year-career, plus another 37 in the playoffs — and as one of the all-time power forwards in the game’s history, a fearsome goal-scorer in an era when hardly anyone could find the back of the net.

But one moment that didn’t make that column stuck in my mind, so much so that I tracked down my original notes to confirm I hadn’t concocted it after the fact. It wasn’t that he was just some impossible force in front of the net, but the way he played the entire game. He played alongside Krejci killing penalties after the Bergeron-Marchand pairing would come off the ice, and he just seemed to know where to be and how to play responsibly at all times. He wasn’t passive or going through the motions while shorthanded, he was as aggressive as ever.

And here’s to keeping notes, because one aspect that I documented but had let slip from my mind was a second-period fight with Radko Gudas after a hit in the neutral zone. And he pummeled him. As Jack Edwards notes on the call, this is a future Hall-of-Famer who already had more than 500 goals at that point, and he put on a clinic in fisticuffs. The fans loved it, of course.

As fighting slides slowly away from the game, that will be seen as a sort of arcane moment in a great career. But it was a live display that Iginla wasn’t interested in resting on his laurels or having a teammate do his dirty work for him. He was a complete player, and he played however the game dictated. Iginla’s 625 goals puts him tied with Joe Sakic at 16th among all-time NHL leaders. How many of the 15 above him were as well rounded and versatile?

It’s that dedication that made him such a superb figure in the sport. He was a leader, he was the best player on a Calgary Flames group that probably should have won the 2004 Stanley Cup, and was a key playoff figure for Pittsburgh in 2013 and Boston the following season. He was an Olympian who represented Canada three times, winning gold twice in 2002 and 2010. He could seemingly do everything, and he did as much as he could while he had skates.

Like every sport’s attempt at immortal enshrinement, the Hockey Hall of Fame is flawed and should not be the end-all and be-all when discussing and remembering greatness in the sport. But recognition is a good thing, and the more that Iginla can get, the better. And it was a thrill to get to watch him up close, even for just a single season.

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