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Jarome Iginla and the Perils of Staying Loyal

The Bruins/Canucks debacle, the sad state of Pittsburgh, and the rest of the week in the NHL

This past Saturday night was a good one for the good guys. During the third period of the Calgary Flames’ 3-1 win over the Minnesota Wild, Jarome Iginla became the 42nd player in NHL history to score 500 goals after he attempted a centering pass that caromed off several Wild players and into the back of the net. That same evening, the Phoenix Coyotes’ Shane Doan — who reached an offensive plateau of his own earlier this season when he netted his 300th — recorded the very first hat trick of his 15-year career, scoring his third goal of the game juuuust as the final buzzer sounded on a Coyotes 5-1 win over the New York Islanders.

Both were satisfying moments and milestones for the veterans, and both were made even more memorable by virtue of where they went down: in front of adoring home crowds that have cheered the two players for the entirety of their immensely respectable NHL careers.

Doan and Iginla were both part of the 1995 NHL draft class, with Doan going seventh overall to the Winnipeg Jets1 and Iginla being taken shortly thereafter by Dallas, picked at no. 11. (The Stars traded the young prospect to Calgary several months later as part of a deal for Joe Nieuwendyk.) Since then, they have grown from teenagers2 to team leaders — both were named captain during the 2003-04 season and have held the role since — and have done so while remaining monogamous to their franchises, like high school sweethearts still holding hands years down the road. Productive but physical, friendly but fierce, they’ve done all the right things with their play on the ice and passed up the opportunity to go play the field.

The group of active 1,000-plus game veterans who have spent their entire careers with one team is a rarefied club; only Nicklas Lidstrom and Martin Brodeur, who have seven Stanley Cup rings between them, have clocked more time in one place than Doan and Iginla. (Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson, who scored his 400th goal on December 30 in overtime against Iginla’s Flames and was recently voted into the All-Star Game, is also waaay up there, as is San Jose’s Patrick Marleau.) It’s a seductive narrative and an admirable endeavor. But as feel-good as it is, nothing feels better than winning it all — just ask Ray Bourque, who at age 39 and after 21 years with the Bruins requested and was granted a trade to the Colorado Avalanche for a final Cup push.

“This was a selfish move in terms of my career,” he told Sports Illustrated‘s Michael Farber shortly after the trade. “I know it’s a shocker, that I made a move like this, because everything I’ve ever done in my life has been safe, safe, safe.”

It paid off the next season, as the famous scene of Joe Sakic presenting a tearful Bourque with the Cup can attest. While it was a little bit strange to see the man in the uniform of another — those colors! is that … purple? — it was also one of the great moments in the league’s history. And ultimately, Bourque’s number was retired with both teams.

Bourque’s story, as unlikely as it may be, has become almost an archetype, brought up in comparison with the current crop of lifetime franchise guys like Iginla, Doan, and Alfredsson. And in turn, the situations of these players (Iginla in particular) are often referenced when discussing one player who appears to be on a similar path, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Rick Nash.

Nash is about four seasons away from entering that 1,000-games-played club. He may be only 27, but he’s been with the Blue Jackets for nearly a decade, having been drafted first overall in 2002 at the age of 18. (He would tie Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk for tops in the league in goal scoring just a year later.) He was named team captain in 2008 and splashed on the cover of NHL 2K9.3 The Blue Jackets made the playoffs for the first time in their history the following season. He signed an eight-year, $62.4 million contract extension with Columbus — cornerstone-of-the-team dollars — and will turn 34 the year it expires, the same age that Iginla is now.

Since then, practically nothing has gone right for the Blue Jackets. Their goaltending has dissolved, their aggressive summer of offseason moving and shaking yielded one player who was given an eight-game suspension to kick off the season and is currently out with a broken ankle until February, and another who has been both unhappy and injured on-and-off since October. The team has had numerous busted draft picks, and has botched the development of several other young players. On Monday, the Blue Jackets fired head coach Scott Arniel, a move that many felt came about two months too late. Fans of the teams are now caught between wanting GM Scott Howson to do something drastic, wanting him to be fired, or being terrified that he’ll somehow do both.

It stands to reason that next year will be better for Columbus, that this year is a freakish anomaly, that at some point Rick Nash will indeed become part of some cohesive whole. “I’ve put all my trust and loyalty into this organization,” he told the Columbus Dispatch. “I’d have to trust them 100 percent, whatever their decisions are.” He called it the most frustrating year of his career. “But you can’t look back. You have to look forward.”

It feels a little like sitting in traffic, or looking for an apartment, or hailing a cab. Do you move around restlessly, or just stay put and be patient?

“I feel I’ve grown up in Calgary,” Iginla recently told Yahoo’s Sean Leahy. “From 18 and a half, 19 on, I’ve been there for a lot of years. I want to win and we have a good team and fortunately now we’re starting to play that way and climbing the standings, so I want to win there.”

Between them, Doan, Iginla, and Alfredsson have won gold medals at the World Championships and Olympics, made numerous All-Star appearances, and amassed a whole trophy case worth of season-end NHL accolades. They’re the kind of stand-up and down-to-earth guys who have earned some of hockey’s highest distinctions: those curt nods of approval and “he’s all class” estimations from even the most reticent of rival fans.

But despite all their leadership, and in large part because of their loyalty, none of these players has lifted the Stanley Cup, and it’s becoming less likely that they ever will. Iginla has come closest — tantalizingly so, falling 2-1 to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals on the heels of a controversial 3-2 double overtime home loss in Game 6.4 The Flames have not made it past the first round of the playoffs in four attempts since. Alfredsson’s Senators lost in five to the Ducks in the 2007 finals. The Coyotes, meanwhile, have reached the playoffs seven times over Doan’s career but have yet to win a series.

“You think you can,” Doan told ESPN The Magazine’s Eric Adelson when asked if it’s possible to turn the young franchise around. “Maybe that’s the definition of insanity, to keep trying when nothing changes. But it’s starting to come.”

Should any of these guys be traded over the next month? Will they be? Every situation is a little bit different, and at this point Nash is the only one who is definitely out of playoff contention. He has insisted he wants to be part of the solution in Ohio, but recently gave a diplomatic response when asked whether he’d waive his no-movement clause, which set off a new round of speculation.5

Iginla, who like Doan6 and Nash has a no-movement clause, has for years been so frequently assailed with talk of a trade that last month Flames GM Jay Feaster got a little bit testy about the situation. (The phrases “blogger in the basement in his underwear” and “there is nobody on the grassy knoll” were used.)

Alfredsson, at age 39 and with just one season remaining on his contract (and the Senators shocking everyone, him included, with their fifth-place standing this season), recently compared himself to Ray Bourque — though not quite the Ray Bourque who went off and wore purple in Colorado. Alfredsson’s vision is more hometown in nature, having to do with the Ottawa-hosted All-Star game that he was voted into by his local fans, the ones who went totally bonkers when he netted goal no. 400 in front of them.

“It is definitely going to be an experience, to represent your team in the All-Star game, in your city,” he said. “In my first All-Star game in ’96, when Ray Bourque played in Boston, I saw the reception he got and the other Boston guys. It was pretty special.”

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

We’re going to agree to make this week’s column a Canucks-Bruins-free zone, because after a game whose fighting and cheap shots were rivaled only by the fighting and cheap shots between the team’s two coaches … and all their players … and surprised TV talking heads … and everyone in the press box … and whoever does the artwork for the Vancouver Sun … THERE IS NOTHING MORE TO SAY.

Except for this: CODY HODGSON. My word.

(After that shot, he’ll now be able to pull Jason Spezza’s fake-out move on any goaltender in the league.)

The runner-up is the Anaheim Ducks’ Bobby Ryan, who responded to his GM Bob Murray’s remark that the disappointing team’s only “untouchables” come the trade deadline would be Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu by scoring this shorthanded goal.

Granted, it was against the Islanders. But still.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

Over the past several years, the Penguins have grown accustomed to leading the league in various statistical categories. But being tops in “man-games lost,”7 with 215 so far this season, is not a distinction that anyone in Pittsburgh is happy about. The Penguins are no strangers to injury; last year Jordan Staal didn’t play until New Year’s Day, and the team’s ability to make the playoffs without both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup over the last few months of the season helped earn Dan Bylsma coach of the year honors.

But with Crosby and no. 1 defenseman Kris Letang currently out with concussions, Staal sidelined for four to six weeks with a torn ligament in his knee suffered in Friday’s game against the Rangers, and forward James Neal playing in spite of a bone bruise to his foot that was originally feared to be a break, this year’s team has seemed increasingly deflated. Last night’s 1-0 loss to the also-banged-up Washington Capitals was the sixth straight game the Penguins have dropped, the first time that has happened since Bylsma became head coach in February of 2009. The team has managed just six goals over the course of the slump, and converted on only one of its 14 power play opportunities.

Pittsburgh is now in fourth place in the Atlantic Division and ninth overall in the East. As ThePensBlog’s Derek Rocco pointed out, with the exception of a December 1 win over Washington the Penguins haven’t beaten a top-8 Eastern Conference team since November 25. Letang began some conditioning earlier this week and Crosby is said to be returning to light on-ice workouts (and possibly addressing the media) at some point in the next several days, so it’s not yet time to panic, particularly with the much-needed All-Star Break on the horizon. But the uncomfortable specter of Crosby’s ongoing problems continues to hang over the team,8 and injuries to these other key players have cast further gloom. Pittsburgh Tribune-Review beat writer Rob Rossi described the post-practice locker room atmosphere on Tuesday as “unsettled,” adding that he “did not recognize the vibe in that room.”

Taking It Coast to Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • Remember the winners and losers of NHL realignment? Well, strike and reverse them. On Friday night — which, as any PR professional knows, is the best time to bury bad news — the NHL tersely announced that the Players Association had failed to agree to the terms of the deal, and that the planned realignment will not be taking place next season as had been expected. The move prompted much speculation over the reasons behind the abrupt U-turn, with some questioning whether it was a strategic move by the Don Fehr-led players union in advance of this coming offseason’s CBA renegotiations, some insisting things aren’t nearly that contentious, and others wondering out loud if perhaps the league itself was happy to stall on its own plan. But one thing is certain: The Winnipeg Jets will for the time being remain, however awkwardly, a “Southeastern” team. (It’s like the faux-geographic March Madness brackets.)
  • In this clip of Pavel Datsyuk’s game-winning goal in overtime against the Chicago Blackhawks, it’s basically a toss-up between the number of shots the Red Wings take before scoring and the number of times the phrase “big bodies” is shouted. This will henceforth be known as the “NBC Sports Network Goal-den Ratio,” and I will be tracking it when the two teams have their rematch this Saturday.
  • The league announced the full All-Star rosters this morning. Notable Snubs: Patrice Bergeron, Thomas Vanek. Notable Snubs Who Apparently Politely Declined Because They’re Old Men: Teemu Selanne, Nicklas Lidstrom. Pleasant Surprises: Brian Elliott, Mikko Koivu, Dan Girardi. I’m Kind of Confused: Dennis Wideman.
  • The news that brothers Brent and Darryl Sutter have tentatively begun speaking to each other again is a nice story and all, but I still got a kick out of what one jaded Calgary Sun commenter had to say: “I can only imagine that a transcript of that conversation would show no fewer than 164 ‘um’s’ and 318 ‘uhhh’s.'”
  • Oh, Dustin Penner, please don’t ever change.9 The L.A. Kings left wing, who has been maligned by fans and his own GM alike for his subpar conditioning and lack of offensive prowess, recently explained that he suffered back spasms while, in his own words, “I just leaned over to dip into some delicious pancakes that my wife made.” This led to headlines like “Kings’ Penner battered by ‘delicious pancakes’; one prankster even took to AllRecipes.com with instructions on whipping up “Mrs. Penner’s Pancakes.” Late Wednesday night, Penner responded to the gleeful ribbing in masterful fashion, writing an “open letter” on Kings blog MayorsManor that concluded with his plans to set up a charity raffle whose winner will be treated to a “Pancakes With Penner” breakfast. No word on whether his wife will be the one catering.
  • Here’s a pretty crazy article on life in Russia’s KHL: “Players have long regarded Russia as an unpredicatably dangerous hinterland. Former Soviet star Alex Mogilny said KGB agents were so relentless following his defection in 1989 that they followed him through the streets of Buffalo … A former NHL executive who was trying to attract investors to rekindle Moscow’s famed Red Army hockey team was recently arrested and held by two drunk police officers.”
  • The NHL’s Central Scouting Bureau released its midterm rankings for NHL prospects, and Nail Yakupov remained at the top of the heap, meaning that basement teams like the Blue Jackets and Oilers won’t have to rename their “Fail for Nail” campaigns.10 (Oh, and in case you’re wondering, no. 13 on the list IS related.)
  • Local papers are the best because they bring us things like this: “The first of a two-part series on Wayne Gretzky’s kindergarten teacher, Cambridge’s Marilyn Smith.” Literally, this is the lede: “With a firm voice and soft sound, kindergarten teacher Marilyn Smith told Wayne Gretzky to pick up his building blocks and put them away.” I want to hug this article, serve it Goldfish and Juicy Juice, and teach it to scrawl its name.
  • Ron Caron, an assistant GM with the Montreal Canadiens and the GM of the St. Louis Blues from 1983 to 1993, passed away at age 82 this week. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch had a funny and warm tribute to the man known as “The Professor,” while the Globe and Mail’s David Shoalts reprinted his 1990 piece on Caron.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

When Brian Burke was named GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2008, he set out a clear agenda, explaining that he would be requiring “proper levels of pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence.” Turns out he was talking about himself.

Burke has had quite the outspoken week. Last Thursday, he called a special press conference that was ostensibly to discuss the demotion of Leafs enforcer Colton Orr to the minor leagues but which spiraled into … well, let’s just say that the key line from Burke’s ensuing rant, in which he used Orr as a springboard to opine about the decline of dedicated enforcers in today’s NHL,11 was a remark that I’m pretty sure he had to have stolen from some discarded draft of a JFK Cold War-era speech.

“The only lament I have on this,” he said, “is the fear that if we don’t have guys looking after each other, that the rats will take this game over.”

In the aftermath, The Sporting News’ Sean Gentille really summed it up best:

That has to be one of the definitive Burke soliloquies, right? Taken on its own, it’s a perfect example of why I find the guy fascinating and frustrating. It was kind of oddly timed, almost completely unnecessary, strangely heartwarming and — in true Burke fashion, at least based on my feelings about him — perched wholly on the fence between old-guard insanity and history-conscious, future-forward pragmatism.

Yep, pretty much. But that didn’t even turn out to be the best Burke soundbite from the past week. Nope, that came yesterday, after Sports Illustrated released the results of a highly suspect poll of 161 NHL players12 that ranked the most overrated among them. No. 1 on the list: Toronto captain Dion Phaneuf.

Burke appeared on Fan 590 radio and scoffed at the notion in the only way he knows how. “Yes, players dumb enough to participate in polls designed to crap on fellow NHLPA members are not very bright,” he said. “They can all go defecate in their chapeaus.”

Now that right there is some truculence. (Though with language like that, you just have to wonder if he’s auditioning for a position in Montreal.)

Hockey Haiku

Snitches get stitches
But the NHL’s future?
We’ll call them sutures.

Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Katie Baker:
Bake Shop: Hockey Nicknames, the Evil of James Dolan, and Whom to Follow on Twitter
The Big, Bad Bruins Are So, So Good
Wedded Blitz: December in the New York Times Wedding Section
The Sacre Bleu Issue With the Canadiens’ New Coach
The Hidden Drama in HBO’s 24/7
Hockey’s Fighting ‘Problem’

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Filed Under: Art, General topics, Katie Baker, Movies, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, People, Sports, Ted

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes

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