SUN Hockey Pool

Canada needs Iginla

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:59 AM ET

Jarome Iginla has announced that he won't play for Canada in next month's world championship. He is making a mistake.

This is not a criticism of Iginla, quite the contrary.

Iginla is everything that embodies Canadian hockey. He is the perfect prototype of what our players should be. He is the person that every young player with professional aspirations should try to emulate.

Unfortunately, however, one of the qualities we admire in our elite players is modesty, and Iginla has that one, too. So much so that he doesn't realize how important he is to the program, not only in the coming world championship, but for at least a decade to come.

He was a major force on the 2002 Olympic team, coming through when Canada needed him most. In that gold-medal game against the United States, Iginla scored two goals, set up another and provided the screen on a fourth.

In 2002, he won the Art Ross Trophy and was the runner-up in the Hart Trophy voting -- only because the tiebreaking system gave Jose Theodore the edge.

Last year, he led his Calgary Flames to the Stanley Cup final after finishing tied for the goal-scoring lead.

If opponents take liberties with him, he handles the matter himself, telling would-be bodyguards that as a matter of principle, he'll settle his own scores.

In Gary Bettman's brave new world, Jarome Iginla can be the face of the National Hockey League.

He is friendly, articulate and accessible.

Think about it.

How many television interviews have you seen with Jarome Iginla? Too many to count? That's because he never says no to a request.

And another thing.

Have you ever seen an interview when he wasn't smiling?

But there is one area in which Iginla is relatively inexperienced. He has played for Canada only twice -- the Olympics and the 2004 World Cup.

And in the first instance, he was a last-minute addition to the training-camp invitees because Simon Gagne came down with an injury.

He may not yet be clear on the concept. The approach to international hockey these days is that it is very much a matter of continuity.

Participation on one Team Canada is a major advantage, almost a prerequisite, toward being selected for the next Team Canada.

But with rights come responsibilities, and the other side of the coin is that if you perform well for Team Canada, you are expected to be available next time.

Granted, participation in Austria is not convenient for Iginla.

But participation in these events is never convenient.

In Iginla's case, there are two issues -- a scheduled tonsillectomy and a baby.

But the continued existence of his tonsils isn't exactly life-threatening, and if Iginla's wife and baby want to join him in Austria, Hockey Canada's family program will make sure they enjoy themselves.

It wasn't always convenient for Wayne Gretzky to pull on the Canadian sweater every time the country decided to take part in an international competition.

But he always did it because he managed to overcome his inherent modesty long enough to recognize that he was the key player in the game and the man around whom the program could be built and prosper.

If Iginla were to look at it from a selfish point of view, he would realize that today, he is the closest thing we have to Gretzky, and that Team Canada involvement can only enhance his image.

In the process, it will enhance his value on the open market.

But those considerations aside, Iginla should be encouraged to realize that in today's game, he is the man.

That status and Team Canada participation go hand in hand.

In an earlier era, it would be called noblesse oblige -- the responsibility of the king to do what is right for his subjects.


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