Tiger Woods. Wayne Gretzky. Magic Johnson. What do these men have in common? Obviously they are champions and superstars in their respective sports, but what other quality ties them together?
To many, it is their pure love of the sports they play and the personality they show through their smiles that makes the difference. In a day of contract holdouts and lockouts, injuries and scandals, professional athletes who display the excitement of living out their childhood dreams are becoming a rarity.
Or so it seems.
Meet Jarome lginla, superstar forward for the National Hockey League’s Calgary Flames. Jarome is one happy guy, and he’s not afraid to show it through his words, actions, and a great big smile. It is virtually impossible for a room not to light up when he walks in grinning from ear to ear after a hard workout or a well-played game. So the question arises, what makes Jarome lginla so happy?
There are plenty of reasons.
“Every day I realize how blessed I’ve been in my life. From the time I was 7 years old, I wanted to play in the NHL, and to this day it’s awesome, it’s fun, and I realize that it’s not going to last forever. This is my eighth year in the NHL now, and it’s gone by so fast — just like life does — so I enjoy every day of it.”
For any kid, just playing in the highest caliber hockey league would be reason enough to be ecstatic. For professional athletes, though, just getting to the league is simply not enough. After the novelty of reaching the majors wears off, the desire to excel and win kicks in. Failure happens, and players must deal with it.
“We’ve been out of the playoffs for 7 years and believe me, every year has gotten tougher. You feel like as far as hockey goes at the end of the year, you’ve failed. That gets pretty hard. But at the same time, it’s a fine line. I want to win so badly, but I’m still having the time of my life.”
The story of Jarome lginla is not unlike many of today’s professional athletes. Many athletes have been forced to face adversity on and off the ice growing up, and Jarome has had his share of challenges as well.
St. Albert is a nice-sized suburb of Alberta’s capital city of Edmonton. There is no inner city or slums. There are no gunshots going off in the calm of night. No gang wars. In fact, St. Albert seems like the perfect place to grow up. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t obstacles to overcome for the family of a kid wanting to play the game he loves.
In Jarome’s case, playing hockey required a lot of family cooperation, especially after his parents divorced when he was young, and he went to live with his mother.
“When I was growing up, my mother was working, and my dad — who lived close by — was going to school. We didn’t have a lot of money and that was a big obstacle, but just as big a challenge was gelling to practices and games and so on. I was very blessed to have grandparents who were great — and that helped out immensely. It was definitely a team of people that contributed to me being able to play, and not all kids have that. So I was extremely fortunate.”
But wait, just because a kid is able to afford the costs of playing and getting to and from the hockey rink doesn’t mean he can overcome all the obstacles on his way to fulfilling his pro hockey dreams.
“Growing up, hockey was always about having fun playing the game,” says the 6′ 1″ 208-pound right-winger. “But I ran into a year when I really didn’t have much fun, and I wasn’t used to that. I was at an age where I was getting into junior high and a lot of kids were quitting around that time, even some really good players. I had a coach that I didn’t always agree with,” he says — and there’s that smile again.
“It was hard to know if I should quit or keep playing, because I wasn’t having much fun . But I was blessed to have such great support from my parents and grandparents that if I had a bad game or a good game it didn’t matter. They would always be very positive and just encourage me.”
One often-overlooked aspect of a kid growing up with NHL dreams is the age at which these youngsters are expected to grow up.
Every major sport has a route to the big leagues. In hockey, there are two primary paths to the big-time. One is to go through college or university. The other and most popular for the young hockey elite is to play Tier One (or Major) Junior A. The upside of Junior is also its downside. The players usually leave home at the young age of 16 to play in a faraway city, meet new teammates, and attend an unfamiliar school. This was Jarome’s route, so he left hometown St. Albert in central Alberta for the Western Hockey League’s Kamloops Blazers, a team based in the middle of British Columbia-hundreds of miles from home.
“Having to move away when I was 16 to play hockey was a real tough thing for me. I had a girlfriend at the time, and it was not easy to move away from her, my friends, and all my family to go to a new school and a new hockey team. It was tough at the time missing a lot of that stuff that you want to be involved in when you are young, but it was definitely worth the sacrifice.”
Part of being a kid in high school is going on ski trips, doing fun things with friends, and chill ing out at home. But for a youngster playing hockey at an elite level, a lot of those things have to be sacrificed.
“When I got to the Blazers, I soon realized that hockey wasn’t supposed to be just fun anymore. It’s work. You practice hard every day after school, and I was used to coming home and relaxing and sleeping. Now I’m in Junior, and I’m finding myself on a bus after a road game getting home at 7:30 in the morning with barely enough time to get home, cat, and shower before I have to be at school.”
It was with the Blazers in 1994 that Jarome had his first taste of success on the national level when Kamloops won the Memorial Cup, Junior hockey’s most coveted prize. The next season was another milestone year for lginla. First, the Blazers repeated as Memorial Cup champions. Then, in June, lginla was drafted in the first round (eleventh overall) by the Dallas Stars.
Iginla would not stay a Star for long, however. In December 1995, he was traded to the Calgary Flames along with Corey Millen for fan favorite Joe Nieuwendyk.
In 1996, lginla was the MYP of the World Junior Hockey Championships in Boston, where he led all players in scoring.
The Olympic year 2002 was a special one for Iginla. First, in February, he was a vital part of Team Canada as it captured its first gold medal in 50 years at the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Returning to the NHL, Iginla continued a torrid pace that made him the leading scorer in the league. He scored 96 points on 52 goals and 44 assists. He captured both the Art Ross scoring trophy and the Maurice Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals.
Those long Kamloops days away from St. Albert had paid off.
So, is that all that lginla has to smile about? Fame, wealth, and a good family? Is that enough to make a life complete? To some, that would be more than enough to draw a smile, but there’s more. Last summer, Iginla married his high school sweetheart, Kara.
“We had been going out since we were pretty young and despite the challenges of moving away to play hockey in Junior, it’s been great. I feel like I met the right girl at a very young age, and we have been able to grow together through a lot of experiences. We share a ton of memories and have been there for each other through a lot of memories. She is my best friend and has been for a long time.”
So Jarome lginla has a job that he loves, plenty of financial freedom, a family full of support, and a wife he loves and with whom he has a long history.
What else could possibly make Jarome smile?
The fact that he has accepted Jesus Christ as his personal Savior has a lot to do with it. Iginla grew up in a diverse spiritual environment. His mom is a Buddhist; his dad, a Christian. He attended a Catholic school.
“Growing up I always had a faith, but it was an unclear faith. I was playing in Kamloops as a junior when I actually accepted Christ as my Savior.”
“I don’t really have that one date or story that I would consider to be my testimony, but I do remember the change. When I was younger, one of my best friends and I were talking and he asked me, ‘What do you think happens when we die? Is it just black? Is it nothing? What do you think?’ I star1ed to think about it and I got this pit of worry in my stomach. I told him, ‘Oh don’t worry, God will take care of us.’
“But deep down it really scared me. I would try to put it out of my mind, but whenever I would think about it, this empty feeling in my stomach would come back.”
In times of worry and fear, people, especially kids, turn to someone they trust to help them cope with what’s bothering them. The young Kamloops Blazer star was no different, so he went to his dad and asked for help.
“This feeling of fear was there for some time until I went to my dad and asked him for help. He said to me ‘Why don’t you ask Jesus to come into your life, forgive your sins, and take that feeling away? If He doesn’t, then you haven’t lost anything, but if He does, look at what you’ve gained.’ So that’s what I did and to this day, that feeling in my stomach hasn’t come back.”
Professional hockey is a sport that doesn’t seem, on the surface, to have many Christians. Not that there aren’t any; there are a few. Players such as Shane Doan of the Phoenix Coyotes, Markus Naslund of the Vancouver Canucks, and Glen Wesley of the Carolina Hurricanes make known their faith in Jesus, but for some reason, hockey generally doesn’t seem to have as many visible Christians as the other major sports in North America. After an NFL game, it’s common to see players down on a knee at mid-field praying with each other. And major league baseball players quite often acknowledge their faith in God in an interview. Maybe that will soon be happening in the NHL.
“I don’t think it’s any harder being a Christian in the NHL compared to other leagues,” says lginla. “There are plenty of believers. Almost every team I’ve played on has had a few. I would agree that hockey players aren’t as visible as other Christian athletes, but they are there.”
And they are making a difference. Off the ice, lginla attempts to use his fame as a hockey player to help others. “There’s a couple of groups I work with. I work with the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation here in Calgary. Diabetes runs in my family, and it is close to my heart. It means a lot to me to contribute as much as I can.”
“I am also involved with KidSport Calgary, which is a part of KidSport Canada. This is a great group that assists financially challenged families with funding. This allows kids to play sports that they otherwise might not be able to play due to financial limits. When I was a kid these challenges were very real to me. KidSport is not just hockey either. I believe that all sports are great for kids. I played a lot of different sports growing up, and it was a great way for me to vent all my energy. My mom always said I had too much energy,” he says with that trademark smile.
Some would say, “Of course he’s smiling. If I was making millions of dollars a year playing a game, I’d be smiling like that too!” If that’s the case, then why aren’t all professional athletes that happy?”
The answer is simple really. Jarome lginla is well aware of how fortunate and blessed he is-on and off the ice. With a winning attitude, the biggest smile in the game, and a heart for God, Iginla is definitely one Calgary Flame that is burning bright.
By David Gulbransen
“Fire and Ice” was featured in the 2004 March-April edition of Sports Spectrum Magazine. To read the full issue, click HERE. Log in HERE to view past issues of Sports Spectrum. Subscribe HERE to receive eight issues of Sports Spectrum a year.