SUN Hockey Pool

Game for change

ERIC FRANCIS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:43 AM ET

More than two decades before Barack Obama first uttered the words "Yes we can" to become the 44th U.S. president, seven-year-old Jarome Iginla was given regular reminders he, well, couldn't.

Sometimes they were taunts, other times they were simply kids being kids, wondering aloud if a black person could play in the NHL.

"It was very common for other kids to say, 'What are your chances? There aren't any black people in the NHL. Why don't you play another sport?' Stuff like that," said the St. Albert native yesterday, before revealing a retort that gave him both comfort and hope.

"Did it hurt? No, not really because I had an answer: I'd say 'whattya mean? Grant Fuhr is black.' Honestly, being able to say that was huge. It would've hurt more so if I didn't have guys like that to look up to. I don't know how I would've felt if I would've realized, 'yeah, you're right -- there's nobody and maybe I could be the first.' Then what are your chances? Then what would I have said?"

It's sad anything needed to be said at all.

But one has to believe the world took yet another giant step towards eliminating such ignorant pestering yesterday when the inauguration of America's first black president reduced yet another colour barrier to rubble.

And with it came hope for millions of young African Americans who can now dare dream of following in his footsteps.

As Obama was sworn in as the first black leader of the world's most powerful nation, the man who became the first black leader of all NHL goal scorers in 2001-02 and 2003-04 watched intently with billions of others as history was made.

"It was a different beginning to a hockey day," beamed the Flames captain of a weight room full of TVs all turned to CNN instead of TSN before practice.

"It's pretty amazing. It's a special day in history to see how many people came out and how many people are excited."

Although he's long been interested in U.S. politics -- Iginla says the John Kerry/George Bush battle of '04 occupied plenty of his time during the lockout season -- the increased significance of what happened in Washington yesterday was evident by the millions in attendance.

"Obviously, he's an amazing person, a great speaker and has huge vision to get that sort of following, but the significance is that race wasn't an issue," said Iginla, 31, the first black man ever nominated an NHL MVP (Hart Trophy) finalist.

"He was the right man to do the job and people believed that. And in a country that has changed so much since segregation and all the emotions and negativity, I think it's great."

While both possess tremendous character, vision and leadership in their respective fields, the most glaring parallel between Obama and Iginla clearly lies in the fact both relative trailblazers have made it easier for the next generation to believe their dreams can come true regardless of race.

"I think it's a whole other world," said the humble Iginla, uncomfortable with any comparisons to Obama, who is also the product of an African-born father and a white mother.

"I'm not the first black player to play in the NHL -- I looked up and I got to see other black players in the NHL, and honestly, it made it a lot easier for me to think it was possible when I saw them there having success."

Obama isn't the first black politician either. However, while the two experienced radically different upbringings, both were the first to have overcome various racial barriers to ascend to the top of their ranks.

"People didn't think it was possible," said Iginla who was referring to Obama's presidency but could easily have been referencing refrains heard throughout his young career.

"What I liked is that he said in his speech 'it's not going to be easy.' "

Again, something Iginla can relate to all too well.


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