A Touch of Class: Linden Bows Out, Iginla Finds 50, Rivals Show Sportsmanship

M MacDonald Hall@@DocMacHallSenior Analyst IApril 6, 2008

Two timeless leaders, Jarome Iginla and Trevor Linden exchange words of respect.

Tonight I digress from writing a detailed game recap of the season finale for the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks at GM Place. Though eight goals would be scored in the 7-1 Flames win, an overwhelming demonstration of hockey sportsmanship overshadowed the actual game.

Jarome Iginla and Trevor Linden were the epitome of class tonight as each had landmark outings, and the teams, coaches and fans followed their example. Linden, who has spent most of his career as a Canuck and fan-favourite has most likely played his last game in the NHL. Nothing has been officially announced, but tonight's emotional Vancouver performance indicated that the rumours the war-horse veteran plans to retire hold water.

Meanwhile, the visiting Flames illustrated the respect they have for their captain as they did almost everything to help him record his second 50-goal season. Held scoreless since posting his 49th against the Canucks on 25 March, Iginla found full support from his team-mates and coach as he was given plenty of ice-time in the last game of the regular season.

The contest meant something different to either team, aside from the pressures alluded to above. The Flames wanted the two points a win would afford as they looked to climb to the highest possible seeding for the playoffs. The Canucks, eliminated from the post-season by the Oilers Thursday—the same game that clinched the Flames’ berth—sought to give the hometown faithful a thank-you/farewell performance as they face losing multiple key players in the off-season.

Both squads played hard to create opportunities for their leaders to excel, and Linden and Iginla obliged with two of the most appreciated performances of the tilt. Moreover, they would show their appreciation by displaying the class which has long defined both men.

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Late in the second period with the score 3-1 in Calgary’s favour, it seemed the Flames captain had finally reached his milestone with a long, heavy shot through traffic. The puck slowed down as it hit padding, but it got by goalie Curtis Sanford—who replaced Luongo after allowing 3-goals-on-9 in the first—and was trickling through the paint and towards the goal-line. Whether or not it would have gone in on its original momentum is now moot. Flames sophomore Dustin Boyd came in with the best of intentions and helped the puck over the line at the last second as he inadvertently took credit for the goal away from Iginla.

A more despondent goal-scorer I’ve never seen as Boyd realised what had happened. The pressure Iginla and the rest of the team have felt in the search for fifty has been immense and to feel responsible for ruining your captain’s big chance would be heartbreaking for any young player.

He needn’t have worried. As Boyd dropped his head in dismay, Iginla, bearing the same beaming grin he always displays when his team finds a lift, skated over and commenced a normal goal celebration. He and the other skaters all crowded Boyd with a scrum, and one could see Iginla lean in on the youngster and reassure him with a word and a pat on the back.

Boyd would probably be much more relieved when Jarome finally found the big marker midway through the third period. Again he forced the puck through traffic, and this time it continued along its trajectory and into the cage to increase Calgary’s lead to 6-1 at 12:25 of the third.

Obviously, no team is happy to be scored upon, but overall there was a positive feeling in the building following the notch after fans realised the signifigance. The outcome of the game was at this point a foregone conclusion and with pressure off, most folks decided to simply appreciate what only two other NHLer’s have done this year. A broad smile painted Flames coach Mike Keenan’s face as he looked happier than he has all season. From the stands, a roar came forth from fans wearing sweaters from both rival teams as everyone recognised the momentous occasion. As the next play began, the home crowd gave an appreciative cheer to the players who had given them eighty-two games of heart through ups and downs in 2007-08.

Linden was also set up time after time by team-mates looking to give the assistant captain a memorable send-off. Though he was unable to score he pressed shift after shift as the fans cheered on their long-time hero. As the clock wound down he would be shown just how indelible an impression he has made in Vancouver and the NHL.

For all the excitement of scoring his fiftieth goal, Jarome Iginla managed to keep things in perspective as well as he always does. When Boyd got credit for what could have been his best chance at goal number fifty, he knew that winning the game and working as a team was more important than worrying about personal stats. When the Flames won and he met his target total during a game in which a nineteen-year veteran grinder played his last NHL contest at home, he understood that a lifetime of hockey leadership trumps a single personal moment.

Trevor Linden and Marcus Naslund left the ice with about thirty seconds left in the game and again received a standing ovation. When the clock finally confirmed the Calgary win, the Canucks squad crowded Linden near the Vancouver bench as he came back out for a last look at the crowded arena. Each blueshirt came forward induvidually to congratulate one of the League’s steadiest players in a personal demonstration of thanks.

As the home team finished honouring the man who played sixteen seasons for Vancouver, the crowd of fans would raise the volume as Jarome Iginla led his squad over, and one-by-one the Flames roster commended No.16 with a handshake and personal praise. The Calgarians who had already departed to the dressing room came back out, and the injured reserve left the press box to add their thoughts, including former Vancouver team-mate Adrian Aucoin. When Iginla’s turn came, Linden pulled in close and told No.12, “You’re the best player in the game.” Mutual admiration was evident, as was modesty. As each Flame approached to lend a word of praise, Linden seemed to return the favour more than once. Dion Phaneuf received acclaim similar to that given his Calgary captain as the two rivals exchanged niceties; the Medicine Hat, Alberta native gave the young defenseman a squeeze and told him he was the best at what he does in the game today.

In a show that resembled the lineups players form at the end of a hard-fought playoff series, there were two glaring differences: Only one man was being congratulated, and everyone was smiling sadly.

As the Flames cleared the ice and the Canucks participated in a fan appreciation night, Jarome Iginla was interviewed by Hockey Night in Canada’s Scott Oake (CBC). Grinning ear to ear in his usual affable manner, Iginla is always a good interview. Already facing the night with style, Jarome showed further humility and grace when Oake oafishly asked him what Linden had whispered in his ear. Perhaps the most genuinely honest personality in the League, the star refused to reveal the flattering details, saying with an apologetic smile that it was a personal moment. Showing class to the last, Calgary’s all-time goal-scoring leader then spoke modestly about hitting the fifty-goal marker yet again and the chances his team have heading into the playoffs, giving due credit to his team as a whole.

Asked about Linden as a player, Iginla told CBC Sports, “He’s not a cheap player. He’s a good, honest player.  He always plays hard and scores big goals.  We have a lot of respect for him.”

Speaking to the media himself, Captain Canuck would reiterate his "personal moment" praise for Iginla, and would add, "I think Jarome is one of the classiest players in the league."

Never one to shamelessly chase glory, Iginla naturally attracts attention which he has garnered over the years, and rightfully so. As one of the game’s finest players and individuals, he carries a responsibility which he manages with style and composure. Linden once drew similar notice as a leader on his team and a steady player through the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. He demonstrated poise as he helped lead the Canucks to the Stanley Cup Final in 1994, scoring twelve goals and twenty-five points in 24 post-season games played. When the Calgary Flames battled Tampa Bay for the Cup in 2004, they were the first Canadian team since the ‘94 Canucks squad to challenge for the hardest-fought title in sports.

Linden, who also played short engagements with the Islanders, Canadiens and Capitals, found his home with the Canucks and the Vancouver community. It is fitting that what may be his last NHL game was played at home in front of the fans that love what he brought to the team and the game. A recipient of the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for commitment to hockey, Linden’s numbers had dropped over the past ten years, but he never stopped contributing to the club and the city.

As his parents watched from behind the Plexiglas, son Trevor received the greatest demonstration of public support and peer admiration possible.

The grace shown from all parties at the Garage this Saturday illustrates why hockey sportsmanship can be counted among the greatest in all of sport. While I commend the great things Linden contributed as a player and NHLPA leader, he was no superstar. Rather, he was a committed sportsman who deserved and has received recognition from fans, coaches, and most importantly, fellow players from around the League. The Canucks handed out the sweaters off their backs to lucky spectators after the game, and Linden’s final (and now autographed) game jersey will sadly but perhaps fittingly end up with the fans. In a League that produces so many heroes and genuine good-guy role models, it is reassuring that the negative associations some people attribute to hockey overall are perpetrated by a minority. Game events perceived as "violent" and atrocious behaviour in the sport are regularly criticised, and usually wrongfully lumped together.

Critics fail to realise the majority do not condone intentionally injuring players, illegitimate physicality, unsportsmanlike conduct etc. and do not generally consider outrageous behaviour as part of the game.

For what it’s worth, the problems hockey purportedly creates tend to be isolated and atypical, and generally are not a systemic threat. Inevitably they are amplified and used as the Crown witness every time an issue arises, but the concerning topics are rarely indicative of regular occurrences.

As though other sports don’t have worse problems.

As though endemic steroid use in professional competition is sportsmanlike.  The negative issues hockey faces don't compare to other such chronic and destructive concerns.

Again, I digress.

Look closely at examples like tonight - examples occurring in different forms all the time at every level of the game - if you want to see what the “Neanderthals on ice” are really like. A game of skill, integrity and heart, hockey relies on each induvidual to perpetuate what those in the know recognise as a system of checks and balances. A game where those who run afoul earn no special consideration, and those who are worthy receive great dividends for effort paid in.

It is something that players of this game have always done, and will continue to do while the highest calibre of professional athlete remain as the core of the sport. Those who oppose how hockey is played and the antagonists who want to neuter the sport lack any understanding of “the code” and other factors that create such a unique atmosphere of competition. Many also see physicality and aggressive competition simply as violence, which is not at all the case as they fail to see the context. They therefore tend to claim that such hockey ideals are outdated, barbaric, or worse, don’t exist in the first place. Obviously, they have never played the game, or failed to recognise the give and take that flows from a self-sanctioned sport.

In any case, it was a fitting showing for and from two of the most selfless players of this generation. Despite what detractors may say, modern hockey is a game that is ultimately very much about respect. Every night, these men put themselves in countless hazardous situations, and they rely upon the common-courtesy of every combatant in the game. There is such heated intensity that it takes a great deal of discipline to uphold ethical principals through every battle, yet the majority of play is fair. When a skater shows a malicious lack of consideration, the intent to injure, it is rarely tolerated, and though it may leave a mark on the game it is outshone constantly as the bulk of players stick to a very strict unwritten code.  Those who fail to respect their opponents and team-mates are bound to struggle.

When a player steps up and stands out as a credit to his name and the sport of hockey, he is honoured by those who understand best what it means to show such composure: the men who battle him night after night, year after year. There are very few people in the world—including the world of sport—who will be the focus of such moving demonstrations as granted Linden. In hockey, the warriors of the ice are lucky enough to find support through expressions of respect great and small nearly every time they play the game. As leaders of extremely adversarial rivals, Iginla and Linden exemplified the reverential traditions of the great game of hockey.

Jarome was named second star of the game as he rounded out 2007-08 with his fiftieth regular-season goal and two added assists, while Linden’s life-long performance earned him one last first star selection. These are two careers and hockey representatives who will long be remembered in the cities each adopted as home.


** Linden was quoted after the game as saying of Iginla, "It was a very, very classy thing to do....  Not only that, he is probably the best player in the league." 

** Alternate captain Robyn Regehr was at the fore with Iginla in leading the Flames team to Linden at the end of the game.  Flames coach Mike Keenan, who was responsible for Linden's only trade away from Vancouver (1997-98), did not participate, thereby avoiding awkwardness.

** Former Flame Byron Ritchie had the lone Vancouver goal tonight with what would be his only shot on net. It was his first goal in 44 games.

** As depth players make a bid to stay in the lineup for the post-season, left-wing Eric Nystrom played a fantastic game tonight. He set up the first goal with a takeaway and a patient passing play, and scored on both of his two shots-on-net to finish with four points. Including tonight’s pair, he has only three goals on the season.

** Calgary backup goalie Curtis Joseph started in net and played a great game, making numerous lead-saving stops as he kept 27 of 28 Vancouver shots on-net out.

** 7 April 2002, Jarome Iginla scored against the Chicago Blackhawks to record his first 50-goal season. This year he surpassed the 96 points he scored in 2001-02, the year he won the Art Ross, Maurice “Rocket” Richard, and Lester B Pearson trophies with 52 goals, 44 assists for 96 points. In tonight’s game, he recorded one goal and two assists, raising his 2007-08 point totals to a new career high with 50 goals and 48 assists for 98 points.

** Marcus Naslund, who has been with the Canucks since 1996 and has long been their captain, may not be returning to Vancouver next year. A free-agent, it is rumoured the Canucks management will not offer him a new contract.

** Most game stats were even for both teams despite the uneven score after sixty minutes.

** If you did not see the game, the moments after the buzzer of heartfelt gratitude and appreciation from all concerned was enough to bring a lump to one’s throat.

** Among Linden's NHL nicknames are Captain Canuck, Mr Clutch, and the traditionally unoriginal hockey moniker Trev. 


** American radio sports analyst Jim Rome has often described ice hockey players as the most polite, personable, professional and intelligent group as a whole to interview. Most junior hockey leagues feature a majority of university/college-student players, many of whom are polite to the point of seeming reticent.

M MacDonald Hall is the Bleacher Report Calgary Flames Community Leader, and will be adding to that department over the summer.  Future articles include a breakdown of Calgary Flames playoff performance in the 21st Century, roster changes and information, and Flames-specific trivia.  M’s Bleacher Report archive includes an assortment of Flames/NHL articles.

M also writes on various other topics, sport and non-sport related.  Enquiries regarding NHL writing or other subjects may be directed to M's Bleacher Report profile or via email. 


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