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Iginla, St-Pierre guided by trailblazers en route to Hockey Hall of Fame

Growing up in St. Albert, Alta., Jarome Iginla didn’t feel any different than his hockey-loving peers. But as the son of a Nigerian father and an American mother, he was occasionally reminded he was.

Other kids would point out that there weren’t too many Black players in the NHL and ask: What were the odds Jarome could make it?

It was in those moments the newly minted Hockey Hall of Famer found extra appreciation for the trailblazers who had broken through.

“I had phases as a kid,” Iginla said Wednesday, after earning election to the Hall in his first year of eligibility. “Like I wanted to be like Mark Messier and I loved Wayne Gretzky, the same as other kids. But it also really was special to me to see the Black players that were in the NHL. To see Grant Fuhr starring (for the Oilers), to be able to say to other people, ‘Well look at Grant Fuhr, he’s an all-star’ and to see Claude Vilgrain and Tony McKegney, to have answers for other kids.

“It was very, very important for me following my dream.”

Oh, the places that dream helped carry him.

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Iginla became the heart and soul of the Calgary Flames, a 50-goal scorer who was equally beloved for flashing a competitive streak when necessary. He was a shining star when Team Canada ended a 50-year gold-medal drought in men’s hockey at the 2002 Olympics and assisted on the Golden Goal after Sidney Crosby hollered “Iggy!” on behalf of the entire nation in 2010.

And soon, be it on Nov. 16 when the Hockey Hall of Fame has tentatively scheduled the induction ceremony or at a further point when the coronavirus pandemic allows, Iginla will become the fourth Black inductee following Fuhr, Angela James and Willie O’Ree.

“It is an honour in so many ways, but also I think that if there’s other kids — other minorities, other Black kids growing up — and seeing that it’s possible,” Iginla said. “Maybe that will be special to some other kids in the way that it was to me.”

Calls like the six Hall of Fame chairman Lanny McDonald made Wednesday afternoon always bring forth a rush of emotions and reflections. Thoughts about parents and partners and teammates and coaches who offered a helping hand along the way.

Heroes and guiding lights, too.

Marian Hossa spoke of his two childhood idols — Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux — and the thrill that came with playing for Lemieux’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 2008.

Kevin Lowe recalled growing up in Quebec, watching the 1970s Montreal Canadiens parade the Stanley Cup through the streets every year and how that fuelled his desire to follow their lead.

Doug Wilson cited the influence of his brother Murray, who won four championships with those Habs teams, calling him “the best big brother you could have.”

Ken Holland is set to join the Hall as a builder and retold the story about briefly becoming an Electrolux vacuum salesman after his nine-year pro career ended — before Jim Devellano called with a scouting job that led him to 22 years at the helm of the Detroit Red Wings.

“Funny how life goes,” Holland said.

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Then there was Kim St-Pierre, understandably thrilled to become the eighth woman ever elected to the Hockey Hall. The longtime Canadian national team goaltender grew up in Chateauguay, Que., before women’s hockey players started competing at the Olympics and world championships, and had to play on boys teams until she was 18.

Her first hockey hero was Patrick Roy. She later found inspiration from the barriers Manon Rheaume knocked down.

“Being the only girl, it was never easy,” said St-Pierre, a three-time Olympic gold medallist. “I want to thank my parents. They said, ‘Ok you want to play hockey, we’ll support you even if you’re the only girl playing hockey in my city.’ I started playing and I soon became a goalie. My second year I saw the goalie equipment in the middle of the room and I don’t know why — I fell in love with the equipment, even if it was brown and it was nothing appealing like it is today.

“I lost my first game. It was awful. I didn’t want to play hockey anymore, but my parents knew I was so passionate about it, so they gave me a second chance and we never looked back.”

Iginla was fortunate to grow up in an Edmonton suburb in the days of Gretzky, Messier, Paul Coffey and Jari Kurri. You know, the Hall of Famers he’s now keeping company with. He was a massive Fuhr fan, too, and cherishes a picture he had taken with the Oilers goaltender at a baseball diamond when he was about 10 years old.

The other shot he has framed in his house appeared in Sports Illustrated when he was teammates with Fuhr and Fred Brathwaite in Calgary during the 1999-2000 season. Iginla played in Fuhr’s last NHL game and that photo has become a treasured memento, too.

“I look at it all the time, and it means a lot to me,” Iginla said.

Here he is now, the boy from St. Albert.

The man who met his heroes and became a hero to so many. Ten or 15 or 20 years down the road there’ll be Hall of Famers talking about him the way he gushes about those who helped fuel his belief.

“Willie O’Ree, being in the Hall of Fame, I think is so well-deserving,” Iginla said. “I didn’t have to experience anything near what he had to do and I’m very thankful for his courage in blazing a path for us to follow.”

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