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Timing perfect for Iginla to head Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2020

In a time when the world is standing together to stand against racism, a feel-good story from what some people call the whitest of sports has emerged.

Jarome Iginla, whose father was a lawyer who moved to Canada from Nigeria, was one of the six 2020 inductees announced by the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto Wednesday. Iginla is a six-time all-star and is the Calgary Flames all-time leader in goals, points, and games played. He may have the longest name in NHL history. Iginla was born Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla. His father, Adekunle Iginla, changed his name to Elvis Iginla when he arrived in Canada.

Other inductees in the Hockey Hall of Fame Class of 2020 are Marian Hossa, Kevin Lowe, Doug Wilson, Kim St. Pierre, and Ken Holland in the builder category.

Iginla will become the fourth black player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November. The other three are Angela James, goalie Grant Fuhr, and the first black player in NHL history, Willie O’Ree.

“When I started playing hockey, Grant Fuhr was my favorite player, so I wanted to be a goalie,” Iginla said during an interview while he was with the Flames. “I played in goal for my first two years before moving out of the net and becoming a forward.”

Iginla, who grew up in St. Albert, Alberta, which is a city adjacent to Edmonton, grew up in an Oilers’ household. His mother, a music teacher, often sang the national anthem at Oilers games. His parents divorced at a young age, so he lived with his mother and grandparents throughout his childhood. Iginla’s grandfather was the one who supported him playing sports at a young age.

As he prepared for the day he was going to inducted into the Hall of Fame, Iginla has been watching the aftermath of the deaths of George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. He reflected on racism in an interview with TSN’s Ryan Rishaug recently.

“It’s been very difficult, very hard to watch,” Iginla said. “The protests are huge. To me they are very, very important and they are very powerful, and I hope they do continue peacefully, and the message doesn’t get lost and is translated into real change in our society.”

While many pro athletes from various sports around the world have been speaking out on racism in the past month, Iginla said the hockey community has been discussing the issue as well. He said awareness is a great thing.

“You are seeing the players speak up,” he said. “There were some really horrible incidents but hopefully some real positive change can come from it in the long term.”

Although the number of black players in the NHL is small, they made an immediate impact with both their social media voices and their actions. After Floyd’s death, PK Subban was the first pro athlete to donate money to his family, as he started a scholarship fund for Floyd’s daughter.

Iginla said that he has been reading some of the messages from some white NHL stars like Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron, Blake Wheeler, and others on the topic as well. He said having more dialogue has been positive, and more importantly, that the messages are coming from the heart.

“It’s going to be great in the dressing rooms, just for more awareness and for people to be more proactive and not be silent if they hear something that is offside toward black players or but also all players,” he told TSN. “The NHL is a great game, and what makes it so great is how diverse it is. I really enjoyed going to a locker room and you play with players from Russia and Sweden and Finland and many different nations.”

While Iginla did not deal with many on-ice racial encounters, there were incidents in the stands. As a youth playing minor hockey, there was a situation where the parents from his team had to stand up to parents from another team who were tossing racial slurs at him. Throughout his pro career, there were also a number of racial taunts aimed at him in opposing arenas.

“My experience in the NHL and growing up as a black player, I didn’t have one person in the NHL call me the ‘N’ word,” Iginla told TSN’s Rishaug. “I didn’t have that, but it doesn’t mean other people didn’t. I played a long time in the NHL, and I felt like my teammates have always treated me with respect and I know that’s not always the case. The more stories I hear are not about the NHL. When I talk to players that I played with, a lot of it is about when they are growing up through the system. I broke into the NHL 20-some years ago, they did have a push on (against racism) and I was very fortunate to come in at that time. That wasn’t always the case in the NHL because there were more racial slurs before, more fans doing things that were completely inappropriate, but as far as players when I broke in, they had an awareness and they had sensitivity training. It sounds like a small thing, but it was actually a big step for the NHL. There were meetings that all players had to go to and you would discuss all the things that were not appropriate at all and would not be tolerated at all.”

Iginla recalled one instance when he was a rookie, and an opponent was chirping him and telling him he didn’t belong on the ice and he should be playing basketball. The officials intervened immediately, and after the game, the opposing player went to the Flames’ dressing room and offered a sincere apology.

Iginla said the NHL has taken a lot of steps in 20 years, but there is still more to do to make players aware. He said the leaders of the game are doing a great job in stepping up to address anything that is said racially. Like in the NHL, Iginla said one of the most powerful messages during the Black Lives Matter protests is that it’s not just black people talking and protesting.

“In Boston, where my family and I are living, you look in the papers you see white people and black people together, and you see all races,” he told TSN’s Rishaug. “I think it’s powerful that everyone is together, and I think that it’s powerful in hockey. You see Crosby and McDavid – they are speaking up along with Evander Kane and Subban. Together, they can help make a difference and make the culture more aware and improve it, and more inviting for black players and minorities.”

Many in hockey have said that racism in the sport must be addressed long before players reach the NHL. Former NHL enforcer Georges Laraque spoke out in Canada last month about how racism in minor hockey is still a problem. Laraque was born in Montreal and grew up there as the son of Haitian immigrants. He and his cousin, Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre, both played in the NHL.

One of the ugliest signs of racism in an NHL arena happened in Laraque’s hometown of Montreal in the early 2000s. A Montreal Canadiens fan threw a banana on the ice at Kevin Weekes, the black goalie of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Iginla’s former Flames teammate, Fred Brathwaite, finished off his goaltending career in the KHL. Brathwaite faced an unexpected wall of racism in Russia that was far beyond anything he had experienced as a black hockey player growing up in Canada or playing in the NHL.

Iginla is involved in the game at the grassroots level now, coaching his son’s minor hockey team. His aim is to have his players embrace the many cultures and races they come across at the rink.

“We’re not all the same and that’s a great thing,” Iginla told TSN. “Coaching with my kids, I try to get that message across to the kids – to be a good team player and to pick each other up. Look for the differences in each other and embrace them and enjoy them.”

Iginla rose through the ranks of his own minor hockey career and also excelled at baseball. He was the catcher on the Canadian junior national team before hanging up the mask and chest protector to focus on hockey. As a junior with the Kamloops Blazers, he was the top player in the league and won a Memorial Cup. He also won his first of two gold medals with Team Canada at the World Junior Championships with 12 points in six games. He was drafted by the Dallas Stars 11th overall in 1995, though he was traded to Calgary before he reached the NHL.

“I remember when I was in Kamloops, I was called in to see the coach and they told me about the trade,” He said in an interview while he was with the Flames. “I thought that Kamloops had traded me, and I was really upset. I loved it there and I wanted to win another Memorial Cup. But then they explained to me that Dallas had traded me to Calgary.”

The Stars landed Joe Nieuwendyk, who was a missing piece for them to win the Stanley Cup three years later. The Flames were looking to move the veteran star during his contract hold out. Iginla was the player the Flames coveted, so he was sent to Calgary with Corey Millen.

“It was great to go to Calgary because I was close to home and my family would be able to come down and see me play,” Iginla said.

Iginla was called up for the playoffs in 1996 and appeared in two games, scoring a goal and adding an assist. It was on the heels of an impressive WHL season with Kamloops in which he had 63 goals and 136 points in 63 games. In the playoffs, he added another 29 goals in 16 games.

“Playing my first NHL game, and having it in the playoffs, is something I will never forget,” he said. “When I heard the Flames were calling me up, I thought it was a prank. I couldn’t believe it.”

Although Iginla never won a Stanley Cup, he did win two Olympic Gold Medals for Canada. In 2002 at Salt Lake City, Iginla became the first black athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Olympics. In 2010, he got the assist on Sidney Crosby’s famous golden goal.

After 16 years with the Flames, Iginla was a deadline acquisition of the Penguins for the final 13 games of the season and a playoff run. He then spent a year in Boston and nearly three in Colorado before finishing his career with a 19-game stint in Los Angeles. In 1,554 games, he totaled 625 goals and 675 assists for 1300 points.

 

Jeff Morris is a three-time winner of the Ontario Community Newspaper Association Columnist of the Year Award. Many notes and quotes from this interview were collected when he was the editor of Canadian Sports Magazine and a hockey columnist for ESPN.com.

 

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