I want you to think about something.
You know October, right? In this case, October 7: the Flames’ home opener. There will be a lot of pomp and circumstance. There always is.
This year, there’s a fortunate little quirk to the opener: as the playing lineup skates out on the ice to be introduced, Mark Giordano will be the first one out there. It’ll be the first time since he became the Flames’ captain – since he rose to prominence, since he identified himself as one of the NHL’s best defencemen – that he’ll have the lowest number on the Flames’ roster. It’ll be dark, there’ll be a single spotlight, and Number 5 will skate out, introduced to the cheers of the Saddledome.
His former partner, Number 7, a homegrown talent, will follow. After him will come Number 10: a local guy who found his love for the game again in Calgary; someone who most certainly took a discount because he wanted to stay in Calgary that badly. Then will come Number 11, another homegrown talent who finally, after years of clawing his way upwards, proved his worth.
We’re four players in to the introduction of 20.
And then the spotlight focuses back on the entrance, the camera goes to another figure skating out, and he’s wearing the number 12. Only 11 players have ever worn Number 12. Only one will ever wear it again, and he’s coming out of the tunnel.
Just think about being in the crowd for the home opener when that happens.
Jarome Iginla, 40 years young, is a free agent. Jarome Iginla, a right winger, wants to continue playing. Jarome Iginla, who will forever be associated with the Calgary Flames, still needs a team to sign him.
The Calgary Flames, in turn, may just have a spot available. Their forward lineup is far from solidified. At least two spots – maybe more, depending on how things shake out – are open. Right wing can be one of them. And maybe these spots are being left open for prospects. They probably should be, unless there’s a slam dunk player they can acquire, and those days are behind Iginla now.
But we don’t care about logic in this moment. It’s irrelevant.
Think back on when Iginla returned to Calgary as a member of the Boston Bruins. The crowd refused to stop standing and cheering for him. Early in the game, he had a shot on net. The crowd was ready to cheer if he scored. After the game, he was encouraged to go for an extended lap around the ice, saluting the fans. Nobody wanted to have him stop, or let him leave.
That is unspeakably rare. Not every franchise can lay claim to a face like Iginla’s. Calgary can, and we’re talking years after his departure. You may step aside and think, “Well, it’s been years; it really doesn’t matter anymore. We’re all over it. We’re ready to move on.”
In Iginla’s last trip to the Saddledome, he scored a goal. He picked up an assist. He fought Deryk Engelland. He was named the first star of the game, and justifiably so. He took the lap. He got a standing ovation.
It has been four years. The Flames have crumbled since his departure. They have built themselves back up, in part thanks to his departure. No real thanks to the return he brought back, but his mere leaving was a seismic shift in the makeup that is the Calgary Flames, a signal that it was time to drop the past and look to the future. And for four years, the Flames have done that. They made the playoffs again, twice. They won a round. They have new names, new talent. The old guard doesn’t show up as much on the backs of jerseys anymore.
… Except for when it does.
It has been four years, and this city has still refused to let go. And that means a lot. And that has to be cherished, because what even is the point of professional sports without figures like Iginla?
Iginla skates out on the ice, Beasley’s voice roaring his name out. The power of his microphone keeps his voice from being drowned out by the sellout crowd. Ticket prices have probably gone up for this, an anticipated home opener in a number of ways, one in which Number 12 contributes. They probably have to pause for a moment before Number 13 – incredibly popular in his own right – skates out. It’s probably loud. It’s probably nowhere near as loud, though.
Signing a contract is one thing. Skating in preseason games is another thing. Playing in the season opener up in Edmonton is something. Stepping back onto Calgary ice wearing red is something entirely different, and the air is palpable with it.
He probably starts the game.
Maybe he has an impact – it’s a smaller sample size, to be sure, but the nine points in 19 games played for the Los Angeles Kings hints he has enough left in the tank for another go at it. Maybe he doesn’t. But the mere act of being here means things are different. They just are.
Iginla has added another 100 goals to his collection since departing Calgary. Number 525 was a special one. It was the game-winner in a meaningless regular season game; it was also one that saw him charge up the ice, muscle out the defender, and tuck the puck in behind the goalie. When it happened, you knew that was it. He ended up playing another game – the Flames were shut out – but even before then, you knew that was the last time, and it was as good a way as any to go out. Against the team he scored his 1,000th career point against. Older, but still a power forward. Nearing the end, but still giving it his all with that one final burst.
Maybe it’s the powerplay. Maybe he’s at the top of the circle. Maybe he’s fed a perfect pass. Maybe he winds up. And then 525 isn’t the last anymore, and it. Is. Deafening.
The season is long. It is never all sunshines and roses. But this edition of the Flames is aiming to make it as much as it can possibly be – maybe as much as it has been in a very, very long time.
The Flames have decided it is time to compete, right now. While their core is intact and mostly young. While they can afford to fight to lay claim to one of the top defensive groups in the NHL. While they have an elite shutdown line, while they have top scoring young talent, while they have four functional lines that they could never seem to have before.
While they have, uh, more centres than they know what to do with, a very foreign concept before Sean Monahan was drafted.
But you look at the Flames’ roster. You look at the Pacific Division. More teams seem to be on the decline than they are on any meaningful rise. Calgary has just committed to going all in, and has made the moves that should allow them to do so. You figure, they’re very, very likely to make the playoffs.
Iginla has not played in the playoffs since 2014. He has not played with the Flames in the playoffs since 2009.
The Flames, in all likelihood, clinch. Iginla is there for it. This has not happened in years. He is there for it. He is going to play in the postseason. For Calgary. On a team that isn’t scrambling to recreate 14-year-old magic. On a team that has made a meaningful attempt to contend, not just bank on the sudden prowess of a 26-year-old franchise player and a former third string goalie who came out of nowhere. Maybe they’re a higher seed. Maybe they actually deserve it. They probably get a couple of games in between clinching and the season’s end to bask in the upcoming glow of the postseason. And he gets that chance again.
Iginla has played for four teams since departing Calgary. This could very well be the end of the line. And – you recall The Shift from years back. A younger player did that. A younger man did that. But it’s still the same guy, and you have to think, if this could very well be it for him – if this is the very last go at it… is the tank not going to be emptied here and now, in this moment? Every last drop of hockey, squeezed out in desperation of trying to reclaim that prize from 14 years ago, every last breath left out on the ice reaching out for the item that over a decade has been spent chasing since it was one single goal away?
Maybe they put in a valiant effort, but don’t get that far.
Maybe they put in a valiant effort with an upgraded roster, and they do.
Someone other than Martin Gelinas scores a series-winning goal.
And now, back to your regularly scheduled reality.
But just think about it.