Johnson: Iginla’s contract status is already a distraction
Flames captain downplays the issue, but the reality questions surrounding his future are not going away
Jarome Iginla was anticipating an interrogation about finally being back on the ice. The one about being back here next year, and potentially for the remainder of his career?
“I didn’t expect that question so early,” he admitted, with a slightly embarrassed stammer.
The season, at last, is upon us. And so is the issue.
At 35, the face of this franchise is entering what could be his final spin as a Calgary Flame. Time may not be of the utmost essence yet, but this isn’t September 2012 anymore. As they prepare to open up, we find ourselves less than six months away from a July 1st deadline that could potentially see Jarome Iginla — as weird as the image might be — walk away as an unrestricted free agent from the only professional home he’s ever known.
This man is quite likely the most popular athlete, arguably the most popular person, period, to ever make a buck, or even a few million of ’em, in this town.
So this isn’t, it goes without saying, just any old player.
Meaning it isn’t just any old negotiation.
So as the game itself tries to scrub as much of the self-inflicted stain off its avarice-spattered reputation, the Iginla sidebar will continue to take on more and more prominence.
What if the Flames entreat him to accept a small haircut, the “hometown discount”, off the pro-rated $7 million he’s earning this abbreviated season? Iginla has said before that he wants to soldier on to 40: Is the hockey club comfortable with that? Mightn’t he want to soak up some UV rays during his sunset seasons in balmier climes, like, say, San Jose or Tampa Bay? Or, weary of the constant mediocrity, slide seamlessly into the lineup of a bona fide Stanley Cup contender? A Detroit, an L.A., a Boston, a New York?
Or is he still, as he has been for so long, sublimely content here, being Jarome and all that it means, complete with the accompanying comfort level and proximity to family and friends.
How does he play on balancing the pros and cons of staying, or going?
“Honestly, I’m just excited to get playing again,” he begged off. “And have that opportunity play in the NHL and compete and play here in Calgary.
“It would be my preference to stay here. For sure. And play on a good team here, which I believe we will be. And to win here. It is home. That’s where my focus is. Getting ready and have a great season as a team and play well for this team.”
With an agreement in place on a new 10-year CBA and the players vote merely academic, the attention finally shifts to the ice after.
In what’s shaping up as a 48-game season, a pokey start for any team, particularly one in as precarious a position as the three-playoff-strikes-in-a-row Flames, could mean curtains.
And Iginla, still the silver bullet in Calgary’s holster, isn’t exactly renowned for lightning starts.
This scenario marks new territory for virtually everyone concerned. In ’94-95, the last season-shortened lockout, Iginla was embroiled in his second season as a Western Hockey League Kamloops Blazer.
“I guess we’ll see what everybody’s been doing as far as being able to keep themselves as close to game shape as possible,” he said after the first post-lockout-settlement workout on Monday. “We’ve been fortunate here, skating at WinSport for the last three months. And a lot of us as a team. The guys that weren’t playing (elsewhere), we’ve probably had around 12 guys, other NHLers and other pros, good coaching and stuff to keep the tempo up. So hopefully it does pay off.
“It’s always a little bit different game-shape when you’re playing a little more physical, leaning on each other. Today we got a little more that. We’re going to keep doing it.
“And after that, it’s just right out of the gates.
Compounding the delicacy of a compressed preparation time here is the introduction of a new coaching group, goaltending guru Clink Malarchuk notwithstanding. The opening of the Bob Hartley era could hardly be launched under less ideal conditions.
“I know the coaching staff is very prepared,” reasoned Iginla. “They’re probably really itching to go, too, with a new team. For us as players, it’s exciting, too. We’ll be ready to learn and get right at it, but I’m sure there’s gonna be a lot of teaching and camp will be about implementing a new system. There’s no excuses or anything like that. We’re just going to try and learn as quick as we can.”
What has yet to be quantified is the fallout from the four months of childish bickering that once again stopped the game in its track. There are, Iginla is only too aware, a whole lot of PO’d people out there.
“There’s no question it’s been extremely hard, challenging on fans. We know that. Just a simple apology doesn’t make up for it. I know it’s going to take some time to win fans back. I definitely understand how ticked off fans have been, and they have every right to be. But as players now all we can do is come out, play hard, play with passion, and hopefully we can win some back.”
The novelty of the situation, the poisonous environment to kick-start a, the parameters. There are many questions to be answered between now and end of the abbreviated schedule.
And here in Calgary, one above all, between now and July 1st.
“I’ll be honest, I haven’t thought about those different scenarios,” Iginla replied, when pressed about his preference for a timetable to negotiations. “Right now it’s just getting ready for training camp. Once the season comes, the focus will be on just winning games. I don’t know when (agent) Don Meehan and Jay (Flames GM Feaster) are going to talk.
“It’s just great that the game is back. And I look forward to that.
“I definitely don’t want this to be a distraction.”
Sorry. Too late.
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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