Johnson: Iginla embracing life with high-flying Pittsburgh Penguins
Former Flames captain opens up about playing without the ‘C’, lining up with Sid the Kid and his future as a pending unrestricted free agent
Watching the melee of microphones and voice recorders clustered far away, in somebody else’s face, blocking someone else’s view, Jarome Iginla can empathize.
“It’s not as if I’m like ‘Oh God, I’m glad THAT’s over,’ ” protests the former Calgary Flames’ captain. “So it’s a tricky question. I don’t want to sound like I’m whining or I didn’t enjoy it. Because I enjoyed being captain in Calgary. Very much. It’s not as if it got to be a burden or anything.
“I considered it an honour.
“Coming here, though, it’s a different situation.
“After practice I see that every day Sid is one of the last guys out of the locker-room because the media want to talk to him. A big part of that is because he’s Sidney Crosby, but part of it is because he’s captain, and that’s what captains do — they speak for the group, they answer questions.
“But yeah, I don’t mind not having to do that, as a daily requirement. It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it back then. I’m just enjoying what comes. Playing. When you’re captain, there’s more responsibility. You’re thinking ‘How’s this guy feeling?’, ‘Where’s the coach at?’
“Most of my focus is on just playing now, on myself, on being ready. And, yeah, that is a nice change.”
Iginla, of course, is intimately familiar with Captain Crosby’s plight. Here, for so long, his stall was Grand Central Station at rush hour, his take on things the one everyone simply had to have. Just as No. 87’s is on the banks of the Allegheny. His was the face of the Calgary Flames’ franchise, his the voice of authority on the (occasional) good times and the (mostly) disappointing ones.
Well, the Penguins already possess a symbol, a superstar, a face, a voice. In Pittsburgh, there’s no shortage of other high-voltage personages to troll for quotes. Evgeni Malkin, if he happens to be in the mood. Kris Letang. Chris Kunitz. James Neal. Pascal Dupuis. Brenden Morrow, another captain conscripted from elsewhere for this playoff run.
So Jarome Iginla is, comparatively speaking, anyway, being left alone. Been there, done that, nice to take a break and pass the mike to someone else. And in this unclaustrophobic climate he finds himself currently seated third position in post-season scoring (2G, 8A).
“It’s exciting to be back in the playoffs,” he’s saying on the phone, between Games 1 and 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinal. “A thrill, for sure. It’s great. I definitely appreciate it. This is the most fun time of the year. You miss it.
“When you’re younger you just believe it’s going to happen all the time. You never give up hope. Every year (in Calgary), even when people weren’t picking us to be in the playoffs, we honestly believed we could still make it. And then when it doesn’t happen . . .
“This year was tough. Hard on everyone, once we started falling out, knowing that changes were coming. The unknown. It wears on everybody. I mean, it’s still fun. It’s still hockey. Still the NHL. But when you’re trying, you’re pushing, and you’re still not meeting expectations . . .”
The Penguins, to the shock of virtually no one, are meeting expectations. Into the second round, ahead 1-0 on the Ottawa Senators heading into tonight’s game at Consol Energy Center. They’ve yet to really hit top gear and yet are 5-2 so far this springtime.
Iginla, too, is starting to feel as if he’s ready to hit his stride.
“The first week here, nothing seemed to go right. I was a little anxious. I’d try to stickhandle with the puck and it’d dribble off into a corner. It was as if I was in a cloud. But it has gotten better and better.”
Watching Crosby, as an on-ice force and an in-the-room, has been a joy for someone who performed the same functions for so long in a different venue.
“I’ve seen so many different types of leaders, of captains, over the years. Sid’s definitely a good captain. He works very hard on his game. He analyzes it all the time, literally shift to shift. From the outside, he’s so talented, people just assume it must come so easy. But he’s worked his whole life to get here. And he doesn’t stop. He’s very driven. Very focused. Never satisfied. And that rubs off on the group.
“On the ice, what really stands out is that he can do everything at top speed. A lot of players, a lot of us, when we get into traffic we stop moving our feet, or our hands, but he keeps the same speed. I noticed that the Olympics. I noticed it at practice. I notice it in games here now. He never slows down.
“He’s going at an incredible speed on the ice, but in his head, he’s relaxed.”
As to his future, Iginla is relaxed. He remains an unrestricted free agent July 1st, and nothing, he stresses, is set in stone.
“My wife and I talk about it all the time. This is a unique life situation for us, in our experiences. I really have no idea what’s ahead. Truly. We don’t know what’s going to happen and we’re fine with that. You saw we sold our house in Calgary. That doesn’t mean we’ll never live in Calgary again, we just want to be prepared. A lot of questions but, like I said, no real answers.
“The focus right now is on trying to win here, now.”
What Jarome Iginla does know is that, whatever happens, Stanley Cup or no, he’ll be playing next season. Somewhere. There’ll be no teary Ray Bourque-like goodbye should the dream at long last come to fruition.
“I had one fan come up to me in a restaurant the other night,” he laughs, “just to say ‘Good luck, Friday.’ And I’m like ‘Thank you.’ And then, out of the blue, he says: ‘If you guys win it, are you going to retire?’ He must’ve thought I said yes, because he was like ‘C’mon? No! No!’
“But, no, I don’t plan on retiring.
“I still feel good. I still love the game. God willing, I’d love to win the Cup this year. But, regardless, I plan on playing for a while longer.”
George Johnson is the Herald’s sports columnist. E-mail him at email@example.com
Follow George Johnson on Twitter/GeorgejohnsonCH
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