The Torch Is Passed: Iginla Fires No. 365

By George Johnson
Updated: March 11, 2008

CALGARY — Through 177 different teammates, three general managers and seven coaching changes (including the inimitable Al MacNeil for 11 unforgettably eccentric games), he has persevered.

On his share of bad teams. On a few very bad teams. A welcome constant in a swirling sea of change. The goal, when it finally arrived, wasn’t exactly vintage Jarome Iginla.

But he wasn’t giving it back.

Power play. Kristian Huselius skimming a pass cross-ice to the captain, lurking with customarily lethal intent near the faceoff dot in the circle to St. Louis goaltender Manny Legace’s right.

And then Iginla leaning into the shot, with the supple destructive power of Ted Williams swinging at a 3-0 fastball or Nicklaus striking an iron with unrivalled sweetness over Rae’s Creek and onto the No. 13 green at Augusta, rounding Amen Corner, looking to stick his second like a lawn dart on the par-5 in two.

Poor Legace could only lurch sideways in a vain attempt to track back, as the puck hit one of his own players and shot over his left shoulder, the Pengrowth Saddledome erupted, and 18,000 devoted cultists stood in tribute.

Mark that time: 18:27 of the first period. An authentic piece of local sporting history. “Ig-gy! Ig-gy! Ig-gy!” the crowd chanted. Yes, Jarome Iginla is now officially No. 1. With a bullet. Good thing, too.

We were getting impatient. We couldn’t wait. “It’s hard to believe, really,” Iginla said later, grinning like a Cheshire Cat. “So cool.

“I can’t describe the feeling to get it in a game like this, when so many guys had big nights. Obviously I wanted to do it here, at home. When I first shot it, I wasn’t sure if I got enough of it. But I got a break. It hit a backside and went in.”

However. Whatever.

It would’ve been nothing short of criminal if this milestone had lingered any longer. Gone more than three games waiting for the prescription to be filled. If goal No. 365 had happened at some generic, functional, out-of-the-way building far from home.

Say the Verizon Centre in Washington or Nationwide Arena in Columbus. A place that wouldn’t know, wouldn’t care, couldn’t possibly be expected to appreciate. In front of . . . strangers.

Oh, you suppose there would’ve been at least a certain nostalgia involved if Iginla had planted his flag atop the goal-scoring summit on Thursday night in Atlanta, the birthplace of this franchise.

But, really, no.

He was meant to share the moment with this town. A community that adopted him a dozen years ago and helped raise as its own (not an easy thing to for someone born and reared in a suburb of, shudder!, Edmonton).

A community that has vicariously shared in his many accomplishments, and taken an almost button-popping parental pride in the consummate good-guy star he has matured into.

“These are the people that love him, that appreciate him, the 19,000 in this building tonight,” said Al Coates of the Anaheim Ducks, who happened to be in attendance Monday night.

Coates is the man who, as GM here, nailed the Iginla deal for an unhappy Joe Nieuwendyk back on Dec. 19, 1995.

“It was like when we won the Stanley Cup last year. To win a Cup is special, no matter where or when. But to do it at home, there’s something extra involved emotionally,” said Coates. “Same as tonight. You want to celebrate it together. With friends and family.”

There were so many juicy sidebars in the 7-3 mauling of the golf course-bound St. Louis Blues that crook-backed sports scribblers were spoiled for choice. Huselius ending his 20-game drought.

Matthew Lombardi’s spectacular short-handed slump-buster. Miikka Kiprusoff’s retaliatory, cheeky underhand toss of the puck into Martin Rucinsky’s moosh after having his mask knocked off. Eric Godard and Marcus Nilsson making like Gretzky and Kurri on one third-period rush.

Yes, so many sidebars. But only one story. “I feel fortunate, blessed, to have been able to play in Calgary as long as I have,” said Iginla. “And now to be the leading goal scorer . . .

“Hey, this isn’t the end. I want to keep going.”

And going. And going. By the time he stops, when this man signs his 72-hole scorecard before heading into the clubhouse, he’ll be virtually impossible to catch.

The closest current Flame to him on the Flames’ goal-scoring list is Daymond Langkow, who trails Iginla by a whopping 281 snipes. Fleury’s record lasted a good, long time — nine years. But Iginla, man, he is going to stay Top of the Charts longer than Hey Jude did in the U.K.

“I remember vividly telling every team we talked to that one of the criteria to making the deal was that the young player we got back would be playing a long time after Joe Nieuwendyk retired,” remembered Coates.

He got what he was after. And this city got a cameo keepsake superstar.

Besides Coates, another figure in the Iginla saga was in the house Monday to watch history being made. Al MacInnis, the man Iginla passed earlier this season on the franchise’s career-games-played list, was on hand, in his role as vice-president of hockey operations of the Blues.

So, too, was Theoren Fleury, after all. Up on the JumboTron, at least.

“Congratulations, Jarome. All the best,” said the franchise’s second-highest goal producer in a brief taped tribute. “See you at 500.”

Now that we can wait for.