SUN Hockey Pool

Captain on the bridge

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:03 AM ET

Grin on his face and beverage in hand, Jarome Iginla works the room like a pro.

Taking time to chat with a hovering chef and hordes of adoring fans, Iginla is finally surrounded by a trio of teammates.

Introducing himself to goaltender Phil Sauve and then shaking hands with Darren McCarty, Iginla reflects on just how happy he is to be back in town.

"It's like the eve of the first day of school," said Iginla, using last night's Flames golf tourney gala to make his first Calgary appearance.

"This is my ninth year here and I think I missed one of these tournaments for the World Cup. You come back and see the guys -- it's great. You keep in touch by e-mail but it's kind of a nice buzz to hear the anticipation. It's a good time of the year."

After a day of unpacking, Iginla is champing at the bit to get Monday's fitness tests over with.

"It's kind of like school in that you want to have everything laid out because once camp starts, it does get pretty busy and that's what you want your focus to be on," said the Flames captain, owner of a new three-year, $21-million contract.

"The first day of camp isn't enjoyable. The fitness testing is very tough. Most guys will say it's pretty draining. But even this year, who cares, because it's been so long and we're just happy to be here."

Well aware pal Steve Montador is within earshot, he playfully suggests the shaggy-haired defenceman will be one of the men to beat in a fitness test Martin Gelinas dominated the last two years.

"In that area there's a lot to live up to -- what a machine Gelly was," said Iginla, unwilling to suggest he's clearly the man to beat this year.

"I don't know. Monty looks pretty good but a guy like that, it could just be on the outside. I'd say some of the frontrunners are Reggie (Robyn Regehr), Byron Ritchie ... it's wide open -- we've got a whole new crew and in two years a lot can change."

One thing that hasn't changed is Iginla's stature as one of the league's best, which was solidified by his first-ever ranking as no. 1 on The Hockey News' Top 50 Players list in stores this week.

"It's a nice compliment," said the humble winger.

"I've been reading The Hockey News forever -- in junior you read it and the stats league-wide -- so it's a huge compliment. But at the same time I realize they could have put lots of guys on there. I'm honoured just to be on the list."

Yet to see himself on the front page of the annual publication, he can't wait to get his hands on one.

"I will admit I was pretty excited about it," said Iginla, who set out a search party of sorts to find a copy.

"I sent (wife) Kara to try and find one but it wasn't in the stores. It will be cool to see."

It'll be even cooler for Flames fans to see how Iginla and the Flames build upon their success in 2004 with an influx of free agents to add depth and character to Darryl Sutter's roster.

Who will play alongside Iginla will be one of the questions asked daily over the next few weeks as Sutter assembles lines that most predict will see Daymond Langkow centering Tony Amonte and No. 12 on the top unit.

As for the team bonding Iginla and his teammates missed during the lockout, few would go as far as to commit to gathering at Coyotes tomorrow night to see McCarty's heavy rock band, Grinder.

"I'll have to ask the wife," chuckled Iginla.

Nice to see some things never change.


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