- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 7, 2002

Jarome Iginla is almost too good to be true. The NHL's leading scorer is clean-cut, humble, a dutiful son and a voracious reader who loves interacting with fans. And as one of the handful of black hockey players, he could help attract a new audience to the sport.

There's only one problem: Iginla plays for Calgary, which is not only one of the most distant outposts from Madison Avenue but hasn't qualified for the postseason in five years and is out of a playoff spot again as the NHL season heads into its final month. What's more, the Flames haven't won a playoff series since they captured their lone Stanley Cup in 1989, when the 24-year-old Iginla was an 11-year-old peewee player in Edmonton.

Iginla didn't have an easy start in Calgary as an 18-year-old junior player acquired from Dallas for fan favorite Joe Nieuwendyk in 1995. However, he was runner-up for Rookie of the Year at 19. After a sophomore slump, he made gradual improvement the next three seasons, setting career highs with 31 goals, 40 assists and 71 points last year.

But the restricted free agent-to-be will soon leave all of those numbers in the rearview mirror along with his $170,000 salary. Not that the son of a Nigerian-born attorney and a massage therapist is spending much time considering his approaching millionaire status.

"I want to stay in Calgary and I believe I will, but I don't spend a lot of time thinking about a contract," Iginla said. "We've got a game every other night and I want to be consistent, help this team make the playoffs and become a star in this league."

Iginla is already just that, as he seeks to become the first player in 22 years other than Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux or Jaromir Jagr to win the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer. Other than Hall of Fame lock Jagr and 1944 winner Herb Cain, every player to lead the league in points has been enshrined in Toronto.

With 40 goals and 73 points in 63 games, Iginla is on pace for 52 goals (third in Calgary history) and 95 points. He alsp has a plus-30 defensive rating, fourth in the league. Since the 6-foot-1, 200-pound center's game is more power than pretty, he prefers to score down low, but he also has a strong slap shot.

"Jarome has the magic touch," said Flames center Craig Conroy. "He knows how to find the open spots and when he gets a chance, he buries it. But it's not like he floats around waiting for the puck. He's out there battling on every shift.

"Before I started playing with him, I knew Jarome was a good player who could shoot the puck hard. In our first game together, I gave him two routine passes and got two assists. I'm thinking, 'This could be a good thing.' And then he went on that streak where he had 31 points in 15 games. But Jarome hasn't put any more pressure on himself because of the season he's having or the extra attention he's getting. He's just enjoying the moment."

Iginla finally registered the first hat trick of his six-year career Monday in New York, but he missed the chance for a fourth goal when he opted to pass to linemate Marc Savard with the Rangers' net empty. No wonder that Calgary defenseman Bob Boughner, a former teammate of Lemieux and Jagr, said the Flames tease Iginla about "being too nice" and said he's the same "naive" guy he was before he became the league's top offensive force.

"This whole year has been fun, going back to when I was invited to Canada's pre-Olympic camp in the summer and got to play with Mario and [Detroit superstar] Steve Yzerman," said Iginla, who scored two goals in Canada's 5-2 victory over the United States 11 days ago, the country's first gold medal in 50 years. "Not feeling out of place competing with those guys was a huge boost for my confidence. Since I was 7, I dreamed of playing in the NHL, getting interviewed and signing autographs. It never gets to be too much."

And despite his success, Iginla hasn't become a pompous star. At the Olympics, he ran into four 21-year-olds who had driven from Calgary to Salt Lake City and were sleeping in a Ford Taurus because they couldn't afford a place to stay. Iginla paid for them to stay at a hotel.

"That's typical Jarome," Conroy said. "He's a classy guy. Anything you ask him to do, he'll do. He has time for everyone."

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