Iginla gives Flames hope, even in defeat

TAMPA, Fla. -- Elvis Iginla pushed his way into the Calgary Flames locker room and heard nothing except sniffles amid the silence. He looked around. Every single player hung his head, including his son, Jarome.

Carefully, slowly, Elvis walked over to Jarome's stall, leaned over, and whispered:

"I'm proud of you. All of Canada is proud of you."

The son did not look up at his father. He simply whispered, "Thank you for coming."

Elvis turned and walked out through the doorway and then past the glare of the waiting cameras. "Two months ago," he said, "they would have taken this." He offered a smile to help reinforce that Iginla optimism. "And next year, they'll be a better team for it."

But then, even the stiff upper lip quivered. "He was so down," Elvis said of his son. "I've never seen him like this."

The cruelest part of this Game 7 loss is this: For seven long years, every one of Jarome Iginla's springs brought the what-ifs and wonder-whys of coming so close. He bore the impossible burden of being the franchise player for a desperate franchise. He endured trade rumors, searing injuries and the constant threat of his team leaving his home province. Iginla knew only a frustration few hockey players can even imagine.

This was worse.

"It's the most toughest loss," Iginla said, "by a thousand times."

This was worse, and yet the same. This season started with the hope that finally Iginla would get some help. Finally he wouldn't be relied on to will a win. Yet it was Iginla who shouldered all the Game 7 expectations. All of Alberta believed Iginla had one more unforgettable performance in him. He didn't. Iginla went without a shot on goal for the final five periods of the season.

And yet it was Iginla who fired the last shot of the year. As the seconds and tenths of seconds slipped away -- even as Flames personnel loaded a truck with his teammates' bags -- Iginla corralled the puck along the boards, spun, and gave his last ounce of effort. The puck never made it to the goal. Once again, Iginla had to helplessly watch others dance around him. So much has changed in Calgary, but Game 7 was so familiar: the Flames just couldn't do it without their captain.

"It was a great year," Iginla said, his eyes so dark that they almost looked like holes in his drawn face. "But ..."

Iginla and his teammates are too hurt for perspective, but their accomplishments are truly stunning. They made the playoffs -- their goal for the year. They beat the division champ Vancouver Canucks after losing a Game 6 in triple overtime at home and then winning Game 7 in overtime in British Columbia. They dropped the President's Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings in six. They completed the division winners sweep by beating the San Jose Sharks. Then they pushed the Stanley Cup champions to the limit. All told, they won as many playoff road games as any other team in NHL history. They played as many as well.

Amazing, but only the beginning. Two months ago, Calgary was known for the Olympics and the Stampede, not really in that order. The city's hockey team was anything from a perpetual disappointment to an annoying blight. In only a short time, the Flames transformed a populace into a community. Their hustle and spirit gave birth to a joy never known before in Western Canada. Tens of thousands of fans danced in the streets after playoff losses, simply because the team had played on a June night. And Monday evening, as the sun set on Alberta, an arena that couldn't sell out for years overflowed for a game played 3,000 miles away. Calgary used to be a cowtown. Now it is a hockeytown. It is Iginla's town.

"Our city," Iginla said Monday night, "showed what a sports city is."

Iginla did not raise the Cup on Monday night. But he has raised a city past the doubts about whether pro hockey is worth seeing and saving. He has raised a continent-wide argument past the obnoxious question of whether supposedly small markets can succeed. He has raised a sport past the novelty of a black athlete making a name for himself in a white world. And with his will and his way, he has raised a standard for all team captains to follow.

Maybe Iginla did not absorb the words spoken to him by his father at the most difficult moment of his career, but that does not make them any less true.

Eric Adelson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at eric.adelson@espn3.com.