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 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 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.
“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.
“Overall, he was a tremendous athlete growing up. He was really good at pretty much everything he did.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
(Photo courtesy Bill Russell.)
(This story was excerpted with permission from Alberta Dugout Stories. To read the full story please go to https://albertadugoutstories.com/ and support the amazing work they do.)
Ian Wilson is the co-founder of Alberta Dugout Stories, a website and social media presence devoted to celebrating baseball in the province. He grew up on Medicine Hat Blue Jays baseball, pines for the Pacific Coast League to return to Calgary, and is most happy when watching a game at Seaman Stadium in Okotoks.