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Jarome Iginla’s bittersweet homecoming to Calgary

Greg Wyshynski
Puck Daddy

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There are different types of homecomings in the National Hockey League, although many share the same DNA:

A hero returns to the city and the team with which he was synonymous, wearing enemy colors. Some fans jeer his decision to leave, provided it was his decision; if not, it’s ownership that gets the jeers. But unless the split was perilously acrimonious, there will be acknowledgement that the player’s dedication was appreciated, his efforts respected, his legacy celebrated with cheers from the crowd.

Jarome Iginla’s return to Calgary on Tuesday night will enter the pantheon inhabited by Wayne Gretzky’s return to Edmonton and Ray Bourque’s first game back in Boston, not only in magnitude but in decibel levels.

No player outside of Lanny McDonald comes close to Iginla’s status as “Mr. Flame,” embodying the virtues – leadership, sacrifice, unparalleled aptitude for the game – that fans beg their star players to have.

The face of the franchise was a smiling warrior, right through the press conference announcing his trade to the Pittsburgh Penguins, which he approved last March.

Players that green light trades, or request them, aren’t always welcomed back with balloons and streamers. Gretzky was famously concerned that Edmonton Oilers fans would boo him for taking Janet to Los Angeles; instead, they cheered him for over four minutes before the national anthem. Bourque was a bit more certain his reaction would be positive in Boston back in 2001, and the sold-out FleetCenter responded with pregame roars and chants of “Ray! Ray!’ during the game.

Bourque’s departure was, perhaps, the closest to Iginla’s in motivation and impact. “If I was going to leave here, I wanted the best opportunity to try to win,” said Iginla during his farewell presser in March, and Bourque was of the same mindset. These were two proud men, two steadfast men, two men so loyal to the only organizations they’d known as NHL players that they were the last men on the Titanic.

As Michael Farber wrote in Sports Illustrated, after Bourque was traded to the Colorado Avalanche:

“If any player could resist the siren call of the Cup, if anyone could spot the narcissism lurking behind the popular conceit that noble veterans—the Marinos, the Barkleys, the Bourques—deserve a championship, it was he. But he was 39 and human and playing for a team that had won only eight games since Thanksgiving.”

Like Bourque, Iginla saw the sands in his career hourglass slipping through while watching his team slip into a prolonged rebuild. So he asked for a trade, GM Jay Feaster granted that wish, traded him to Boston, Iginla didn’t want to go there, and then traded him to Pittsburgh, where the Penguins failed in the playoffs, leading him to sign with Boston.

(Most of these homecomings don’t require a flowchart to trace the course of the conquering hero’s return, but so be it.)

Like with Bourque, the Flames fans get it. Iginla might have overstayed his welcome, but management didn’t exactly have the spine to deal him at the appropriate time, deluding themselves into thinking Calgary was a contender rather than a franchise in need of a wrecking ball. Whatever the case, it’s not as if Iginla left the Flames in a cloud of animosity. The Calgary Herald cover on the day after the trade captured it best:

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Iginla returns to Calgary as a member of a Stanley Cup contender in the Bruins, facing a Flames team that squandered an early tease for a 11-14-4 record, just three points ahead of that disaster in Edmonton.

When Bourque left Boston, fans wished him well, but were understandably morose when he finally raised the Cup wearing the swooshing ‘A’ rather than the ‘Spoked-B’. He was forever a Bruin, masquerading in another team’s sweater. But it was in Colorado where he achieved what he couldn’t in two decades with Boston. And the Bruins fans who waited with him were left still waiting.

One imagines the same scenario if Iginla hoists the Cup with the Bruins eventually. It nearly happened in Calgary in 2004. It wasn’t going to happen again in Calgary until well after Iginla hung up his skates. To see him finally win the Chalice as a Bruin would elicit that singular mix of appreciation and envy that’s comes after a bittersweet split; dreams of career-spanning tenure and dramatic sendoffs replaced by the reality that Iginla will likely end his career wearing something other than the Flaming 'C'.

But that’s why Iginla made the difficult, life-changing decision to leave Calgary -- for a chance to win. As Bourque told the Calgary Sun in March:

“For me, I always thought I was (happy) and I’d never leave. But you know, I left something pretty special and never thought I’d do it. For me, it was always about treating people the way I wanted to be treated — doing it the right way and working hard and being a good teammate and respecting the game and respecting everything around it.

“If you do things the right way, how can things go wrong? I think it was shown when I came back to Boston people appreciated how things were done.”

Flames fans will show the same appreciation to Iginla on Tuesday night. Because he represented them and their city with class. Because he remained loyal to the organization to the poignant end. Because he’s Jarome Iginla, and Calgary will always be his home.

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