By IAN WILSON
No one can ever accuse Jarome Iginla of choosing the wrong sport.
As a two-time Olympic gold medalist and a player who amassed 625 goals and 1,300 points over his National Hockey League (NHL) career, the former Art Ross Trophy winner can sleep soundly knowing that the work boots that fit him best had steel blades on the soles.
But that’s not to say that “Iggy” – as he became known to Calgary Flames fans – didn’t have options when it came to his athletic pursuits. The product of St. Albert was just as comfortable in cleats as he was in skates when he was growing up, and those who witnessed what he was capable of on the diamond say he could have had a future in baseball if he chose that route.
“He was pretty damn good. Just a pure natural athlete,” said Kurtus Millar, the president of the St. Albert Minor Baseball Association (SAMBA), who took the field alongside Iginla as a teenager.
“I would say if he worked at it like he did with hockey he could have had a shot at being drafted. He had all the tools and was an awesome athlete at every sport he played.”
Iginla had even considered pursuing a career in both the NHL and Major League Baseball (MLB) at one point. Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders had already popularized the concept of the two-sport athlete by playing both baseball and football professionally in the same season, so the idea wasn’t necessarily that far fetched.
JAROME KNOWS BASEBALL
“There was a time when I was a bit younger when I really thought I could play both professionally,” Iginla told Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter Mike Heika in a July 19, 1995 article after the Kamloops Blazers forward had been drafted by the Dallas Stars.
“But I’ve realized what it takes, and I know better now.”
Heika’s story also noted that Iginla had thrown a no-hitter a week before the NHL Entry Draft and he was capable of hitting 90 miles per hour on the radar gun.
Bill Russell, a lifelong friend who has known Iginla for over three decades, is skeptical about that fastball claim but he remembers a teammate who was a special athlete.
“I don’t think he ever really got it up to 90, I have to say, but he was a fireballer for our age, for sure,” said Russell, who still lives in St. Albert and coaches baseball now.
Russell and Iginla were battery mates – both players were pitchers, but Iginla was also a catcher.
“We had that great relationship together. He was the best catcher that I ever pitched to,” said the 42-year-old father of three, who later faced Iginla as a goaltender with the Swift Current Broncos of the Western Hockey League (WHL).
“Overall, he was a tremendous athlete growing up. He was really good at pretty much everything he did.”
STRONG ARM AND A GREAT BAT
When he wasn’t pitching, Iginla’s powerful arm made him an effective shortstop and a feared backstop.
“He was our number one catcher, there wasn’t any doubt about that,” recalled Russell.
“I remember he was going through his stages of the Tony Pena days, where he’d be throwing guys out from his knees. He had that arm strength and was able to do that and he really understood the game.”
Iginla was a tough out at the plate, too, displaying the same competitive mentality that made him such an excellent hockey player.
“He was a great hitter … he was never intimidated,” said Russell.
“The harder a pitcher threw, he was usually one of the only guys that could get hits off of him. Other kids might get intimidated easily or be afraid and he wasn’t. He’d almost move up in the box rather than move back in the box, and he’d really want to challenge him to throw it by him. He’d want to go best on best. ‘Throw me your fastball and I’ll hit it.’ He was never afraid.”
BEST ON BEST
One of those “best on best” moments came for Iginla when he faced righthanded hurler Joe Young of Edmonton during midget-level play at Legion Memorial Ball Park in St. Albert in the early 1990s.
Young – who was a 6-foot-4, 210-pound third-round draft pick of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993 – brought heat that Iginla and his Cardinals teammates had never seen before.
“He was legitimately throwing 90 miles an hour. You could hear the whistle on the baseball from the dugout,” said Russell of the former Medicine Hat Blue Jay pitcher.
“Joe Young was a big kid back then. He was big and strong and he was pretty intimidating on the mound, especially when you’re throwing that hard. Jarome just stepped right in there and he was just dialed in and focused and he wasn’t defensive, he was aggressive. It might have been the first or second pitch that he threw that he ripped it up the middle for a single.”
It was that kind of ability that pointed to a future in baseball – if Iginla wanted it.
“If he really chose that he was going to go the baseball route, I would have no doubts that he would’ve had some really good opportunities in baseball. A lot of that just comes from that competitiveness, the athleticism. He was a top player here back in the day when we didn’t have a lot of extra training options available like kids do now. The only thing that might have worked against him and really anybody at that time coming out of St. Albert for baseball was the fact we were in St. Albert for baseball,” said Russell, an alumnus of the St. Albert Tigers senior AAA team.
“If you didn’t throw 88 or 90 (mph) they probably weren’t even going to come out and watch you because they had to come from so far. But if he really decided that that’s what he was going to do, I have no doubt that he would’ve been able to at least play at a good college.”
For Iginla and Russell, hockey eventually sent the men on different paths, but the time they spent on Alberta ball diamonds still provides plenty of material for nostalgic conversations.
Van rides to Lacombe, burgers between doubleheaders in Fort Saskatchewan, and listening to Iginla’s grandfather do play-by-play calls on the public address system are just a few fond memories that come to mind.
“Those were the good ol’ days. Those are probably the best burgers we ever had. We earned those burgers. Those memories are big for me and I’m sure they would be for Jarome, too,” said Russell, who has since attended MLB games with Iginla in Seattle, New York and Los Angeles.
“There’s no question that Jarome’s love of baseball is always going to be there.”
Hockey will be the sport that reunites the two pals when Iginla sees his No. 12 raised to the rafters at the Scotiabank Saddledome on Saturday, March 2nd before the Flames game against the Minnesota Wild.
Russell and his family will be among the adoring fans in attendance for the highly-anticipated jersey retirement.
“It’s just a great tribute to him and everyone that’s helped him along the way,” said Russell.
“He’s truly a great person, so for him to have all this success throughout his career, it’s a great thing … he’s deserved everything that he’s earned.”