Iggy stardust

a href="mailto:terry.jones@edm.sunpub.com">TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 2:27 PM ET


 TAMPA -- The greatest player in hockey.

 It came out of the mouth of one of the broadcasters calling Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final like it was undisputed, a given. Gordie Howe. Bobby Orr. Wayne Gretzky. Mario Lemieux. Jarome Iginla.

 Has that happened? Is it happening now before our eyes? Is it about to happen?

 "He's a pretty special guy," said Martin Gelinas at practice yesterday.

 "He scores big goals. He's taken a huge leadership role. He's the best leader I've ever played with."

 Whoa. Think about that. Gelinas won a Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers in 1990 with Mark Messier, a.k.a. "The Greatest Leader in Hockey History".

 That's saying something.

 All of which put Iginla in an aw-shucks position on the subject when I brought it up at a press conference-style media session at the Brandon, Florida, practice facility.

 "It's hard to believe that would be said," Iginla began, indicating maybe it's the moment, finally being in the finals, leading the playoffs with 11 goals and all that, not mentioning the part about grabbing his team by the throat and being an absolute force in increasing degrees as the countdown to a Stanley Cup continues for Calgary.

 "This playoff run has been exciting for our team and we all get more coverage," he said, starting to shrug off the question.

 A LAST-MINUTE INVITE

 But he didn't leave it at that.

 As recently as the fall of 2002, when Iginla was a last-minute invite to Team Canada's Olympic training camp to fill the uniform of an injured player - because camp was in Calgary, he was a Flame and could drive there from Edmonton in time for the first practice - Iginla had been uncomfortable with the media.

 But not now. He was completely comfortable to go ahead and chew on the idea for a bit.

 "I have always wanted to be an elite player in the league and a star in the league. I look at some of the best players, Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg. I really look up to those guys with their intensity and their winning. I loved playing with Sakic at the Olympics and seeing what kind of player he is, how dedicated he is and what kind of person he is. It was a great experience.

 "You look at them and how they do it, year in and year out. You try to shut down Sakic and you know you can't. He finds a way to be consistent. So I would like to get better. I'm going to work at it and try to get better."

 But the greatest player in hockey?

 "That's a huge compliment," he said.

 Just as huge is the number of people who are now talking about him in terms of being such a nice guy. He was even being asked about being such a nice guy yesterday.

 "Um, thanks," he said. "You know, I don't know, I just know that I'm thankful to be in the NHL. This is something I've dreamed about since I was seven years old. This is the time of my life. It really is."

 Iginla first emerged as a force at the Salt Lake Olympics. He was huge in the gold-medal game. But this is a different deal. And he seems to have grown so much since then. I asked about how everything has evolved to the point that there would be a room full of people asking questions and the way he's become so at ease with it.

 "I remember the first time when the camera would go on and the lights and how nervous I was and how I was kind of like a deer caught in headlights. I still get nervous and say too many 'ums' but it's fun. It's all a part of it and it's what I have always dreamed about, watching my heroes when I was young doing interviews and things like that. It's been a great experience."

 Someone else asked about those heroes. And he took a detour to talk about his colour.

 LOVED HIS LEADERSHIP

 "I grew up in St. Albert, just outside of Edmonton. I loved the Oilers, so I loved Wayne Gretzky. Everybody loved him. Mark Messier. I loved his leadership and his intensity. Grant Fuhr. Being a minority player, I followed other minority players. Claude Vilgrain. Tony McKegney. Being the only black player on my team growing up ... some of the other kids would point out that there are not many black players in the NHL.

 "What are the chances? I know what it meant to me. It was nice to look at Grant Fuhr winning his Stanley Cups, Vilgrain scoring 30 goals and McKegney, 40. It was easier to see it was possible."

 And now he's being referred to as the best player in hockey?

 "Well, I don't think right now he is," said coach Darryl Sutter."I mean, he's been one of the best players in the league for three years now. Now he's having team success so it's a much more magnifed deal. I think you are hard-pressed to find a better right winger. I've been around a lot of great players, coached a lot of great players, so he's one of them. He's one of them.

 "He's a big power guy. He's an old-school player. He plays a lot of minutes - power play, penalty kills, plays against the skilled players, plays the last minute of a period, plays the first minute of a period. Great family guy. He's from Alberta. He's good with the media ..."

 Sutter is right. Jarome Iginla is not the undisputed best player in hockey. Not yet. But if he becomes that, he's showing he'd make a wonderful spokesman for the game. There really hasn't been one since Gretzky.


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