Abandoned by our leader


Imagine if High Noon had been written differently. Imagine if Gary Cooper, in the face of almost insurmountable odds and facing a deadline with fate, decided not to be the legendary hero and go after the enemy with guns a-blazin’. Imagine he simply didn’t show up.

Not so heroic, is it? In fact, that story pretty much blows, doesn’t it?

Yet the Flames’ version of Gary Cooper, in the Flames’ version of High Noon, has been doing just that. Jarome Iginla, when his franchise needs him perhaps more than it has at any time in his career, has skipped town.

Not literally, of course. Iggy’s still there every game, in body. But where’s the spirit? Where’s the leader? Where’s the guy we need right now?

In today’s perhaps playoff-crushing 4-1 loss in Chicago – a game the Flames had to win, but didn’t even come close – what was the team’s undisputed leader and superstar’s contribution? Zero goals, zero assists, one shot, zero hits, minus-2.

His line in the absolutely critical 2-1 win the Flames eked out in Colorado on Friday night? Zero goals, zero assists, one shot, minus-1. And it was a minus-1 richly earned: On the Avalanche’s lone goal, Iginla ended a dreadful shift by leaving eventual goal-scorer T.J. Galiardi all alone in front of the net while he chased a player who was already being covered by Robyn Regehr. A bantam-league mistake.

In the most critical stretch run for the franchise in years, Iginla’s game has gone AWOL. He hasn’t scored a goal in nine games, and only once in the past 13. He has one point in his past six games.

This is brutal. He’s supposed to be picking up his game. Instead, he’s letting down his team.

What’s worse, it’s not just a bad patch. With the exception of a red-hot November, this has been Iginla’s entire season. An occasional spurt of brilliance, surrounded by long stretches of confounding indifference. (Is it any surprise that the team’s season has mirrored Iggy’s?)

I’m a huge Iginla fan. I have a freakin’ shrine to the guy in my computer room. But he’s driving me nuts. What the hell is wrong? Why does he look so lousy at precisely the time when he’s expected to be at his best?

Earlier in the season, I decided the Olympics were a distraction – that he was focusing on Vancouver 2010 to the detriment of his game-to-game play, maybe thinking in the back of his mind about avoiding injury and thus holding back a bit, not getting involved. (And his game has always required high levels of physical and emotional involvement.)

At the Olympics, I saw enough flashes of the old Iggy to have my confidence restored. The take-the-hit-to-make-the-play pass to Sidney Crosby for the gold-medal-winning goal was vintage Iginla – anyone who has watched him for the past decade knew in their gut that he would come out of the battle along the half-boards with the puck on his stick, not matter what it took – and he did.

Gold medal in hand, all would be fine back in Calgary for the stretch drive, right? Wrong. In the month since the Olympic break, Iginla has 5 goals and 7 assists in 17 games, and is a minus-5. Of those 12 points, seven came in a four-game stretch immediately after the Olympic break; since then, Captain Calgary has been all but invisible.

So now, I’ve decided he must be hurt. Some undisclosed injury that has been slowing him for months, or at least since the Games, it’s more painful every day, and he’s been trying to bravely play through it. I’ve got to believe my hero is still a hero, not just some guy who’s too burned out and worn out to do his job.

But I fear the latter may be the case. Is Iggy simply, suddenly, TOO OLD?

Hey, it had to happen sometime. We all know that guys who play Iginla’s style – physical, down low, driving for the net – their games rarely age gracefully. Add to that the weight of carrying this team on his shoulders year after year, always battling the top shutdown players in the NHL, that’s got to wear a guy down a lot younger than some periphery-playing finesse player on a team with a strong supporting cast.

And isn’t this always the way the slide begins for the prototypical power forward? First it’s a slump or two, or three – a week here, a week there, then a month, then more. Then it’s an “off season”, except the bounce-back year is never quite there, the drop in production never quite returns. The injuries start to creep in; he’ll be better next season, they and we try to convince ourselves, he’ll be healthy and fit again and the power game will return. But 20 games later and it’s another slow start, another slump, another nagging injury slowing him down. Then, quicker than anyone could have foreseen, we’re watching a tearful goodbye at a retirement press conference.

Naw, that can’t be what’s happening here. It’s gotta be an injury, or just a bad patch. It’s just gotta be.