A star is born

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 11:15 AM ET

 DETROIT -- Darren McCarty said Jarome Iginla is as good as Peter Forsberg.

 Kris Draper said Calgary's No. 12 is even better than that.

  And Brendan Shanahan suggested the Flames winger would be a great captain for Team Canada.

 Yes, it's been quite a week for Iginla.

 Game 7 hero in his first full playoff series, a spot among post-season scoring leaders, a Hart Trophy nomination and a steady stream of accolades on both sides of the border recognizing his brilliance.

 Funny how after eight seasons in the NHL as one of the grittiest and most consistent snipers of his time, two weeks of playoff hockey finally has the rest of the hockey world saying what Calgarians have known all along: He's the best player in hockey today.

 These playoffs just happen to be his coming-out party.

 "You see a lot of young guys who are supposed to be the future stars of the league who dive or don't put the team first," said Shanahan, in the twilight of a brilliant career as one of the game's best power forwards.

 "If they're going to hand a torch off to somebody, he's a guy us older players would be happy to see it go to. He doesn't dive, he's not a cheap player, he's got a code and if you break that code, he'll break it back. He's a throwback player -- a classy player and the kind of guy you root for."

 Not that Shanahan is hoping Iginla will add to his accomplishments today or next week as his club battles the Flames.

 But the veteran Wings stud has long been aware of the talents Iginla possesses.

 Long before he opened the 2002 Olympic tourney on a line with Iginla and Steve Yzerman, Shanahan was involved in a punchup with Iginla at the 'Dome that saw Iginla leave the ice bloodied, only to return to score twice and assist on the game winner.

 Afterwards, the humble Iginla spoke of what an honour it was to battle Shanahan, who was his hero growing up.

 "Hero?" shot back Shanahan following Calgary's 2-1 overtime win in Game 1 of their series.

 "After what he did tonight, he's MY hero."

 With the increased exposure the playoffs affords the game's stars, Iginla is winning over fans who'd only known him by name before.

 Now they can see firsthand why Motown hockey fans are suddenly wondering if, in fact, Calgary does have what it takes to knock off their team.

 "He needs this right now -- to get playoff games under his belt," said Shanahan.

 "He's starting to show the league it's not just the Olympics but he can step up in a Game 7 or an entire playoff series when it matters most. He'd be a great choice to captain Team Canada."

 Iginla will put his talents on display again today for Game 2 on ABC (1 p.m.) when those in America not busy watching the NFL draft, baseball or bowling will get a glimpse of his ability to dominate a game through his power, finesse and leadership.

 In Thursday's series opener at The Joe, Wings coach Dave Lewis was preoccupied with matching his Grind Line against Iginla, meaning Detroit's checking squad spent more time on the ice than their first or second units.

 With that in mind, even when Iginla is held off the scoresheet, he still has the ability to be the star of the game.

 "For power forwards, he's probably the premier one," said Draper, who combined with McCarty and Kirk Maltby to limit Iginla to three good scoring chances in the second period of Game 1.

 "You get judged this time of year and he stepped up in Game 7 and throughout that Vancouver series. The great players do that."

 That players such as Draper, Shanahan and McCarty recognize his immense talent is nothing new.

 However, over the last little while, the word 'good' has been replaced by 'great' when describing the 26-year-old Alberta product.

 Calgarians have seen it for years, Canadians saw it at the Olympics when he scored twice and added an assist in the gold-medal game and now all hockey fans are seeing his abilities.

 "It's their own fault they're just waking up," laughed Flames defenceman Rhett Warrener, who long admired Iginla's talents from afar.

 "You can certainly make a name for yourself in the playoffs and he's doing that. Anybody can have a good season but it's how they play when the hardware is on the line that matters most. It's good for the team and it's good for the game."

 You bet it is, especially when the affable winger attracts the likes of New York Times columnist Joe Lapointe to Hockeytown just so he can do a feature on the kid from St. Albert who never stops smiling.

 "It's definitely a coming-out party," said Craig Conroy, who erroneously thought even without a full playoff series under his belt. Iginla would have garnered more kudos as an NHL great.

 "I thought two years ago (when Iginla won the scoring title and Rocket Richard Trophy), we'd see more of our games on (U.S. network) TV because he's one of the best young players in the league. But you've got to get to a stage like this to be recognized."

 Helping his cause is the fact he's as approachable, humble, respectful and engaging as any athlete in pro sports today.

 Detroit hockey writers, who are used to being turned down daily for interviews with the club's elite players, are in awe of the class, poise and patience Iginla displays when surrounded for his daily media scrums and endless one-on-ones.

 "He's just so grounded -- he's not going to be big-headed and say, 'I'm the best in the world,' " said Conroy.

 "You won't find anyone inside or outside hockey who would say a bad word about him. This is the kind of thing hockey needs -- a guy like that with attitude, charisma ... everything. To make the game grow and get better, what better guy to lead the charge?"

 So powerful has been Iginla's emergence this spring, even Darryl Sutter got in on the love-in following Game 7 when he suggested he hadn't seen a captain take over a series like Iginla did in decades.

 "He's 26 and I don't think you've seen all of what Jarome can do yet," said Sutter, who was notoriously hard on Iginla throughout the season, pushing him to be better.

 "All players at some point in their career need to prove themselves in the playoffs. That still identifies a player with what he's all about.

 "He's an old-school guy who plays hard and within the rules. That's all you can ask."

 All these kind words thanks to a playoff run he hopes has just begun.

 "I really want to be an elite player in the league and I really believe I can get better," said Iginla, who received his second Hart Trophy nomination Wednesday.

 "Two years ago, I had some success stat-wise but this year has been more fun. I always wondered if people meant it when they said it but it's true -- team accomplishments are so much more rewarding than individual ones."

 Still, he's being singled out as the man who spurs his club on to a hard-working, physical game plan he leads by example.

 Ironically, one thing Sutter would like to see change about Iginla is the accessibility he provides to the media and fans alike.

 "He's so good with everybody, he's to the point he's like Wayne (Gretzky) in Edmonton," said Sutter.

 "I have to be the hard-a-- because he's the face of the team but, on game day, he has to be the face of the team on the ice."

 Speaking of face, the only thing Iginla is having problems with these days is his playoff beard, an unsightly hodge-podge of hair with patches as sparse as Mellon Arena crowds.

 "I saw him trimming up the other day and suggested maybe he's one of those guys who should shave," laughed Warrener. "Then again, he can do whatever he wants."

 After all, he is Jarome Iginla -- the best the NHL has to offer.


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