For 20 seasons, Jarome Iginla was one of the faces of the National Hockey League, prospering from an 11th overall pick in 1995 to a feared physical specimen that could put the puck in the net. But on Wednesday morning, it was revealed that the former four-time All-Star will announce his retirement on Monday at the Scotiabank Saddledome in Calgary, a building he called home for the majority of his tenure. Although he bounced around the last several seasons of his career, with stops in Pittsburgh, Boston, Colorado and Los Angeles, Iginla will always be remembered as the captain of the Calgary Flames – and a player who just wasn’t able to hoist the Stanley Cup during his time in the NHL.
While careers are often defined by championships – just look at Alexander Ovechkin prior to last June – it’s a challenging task remain the last team standing and win the greatest trophy in sports, one even great players have never done. But there aren’t many former ringless players out there with Iginla’s level of accomplishments, begging the question: Is he the greatest player to never win the Stanley Cup?
To better answer that question, it’s important to understand just what the Edmonton-native’s contributions were on the ice. In 1,554 regular season games, the now 41-year-old tallied 625 goals and 675 assists for 1,300 points, while accumulating 68 points – 37 goals and 31 assists – in 81 postseason appearances. Engulfed in a time that featured generational talents – and winners – such as Jaromir Jagr, Nicklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg and Sidney Crosby, Iginla still managed to stand out and make his way to the top, earning the Maurice Richard Trophy twice (2002, 2004) as the league’s leading goal scorer, the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading point scorer (2002) and the Lester B. Pearson Award as the most valuable player as voted on by members of the NHL Players Association (2002). Tack on the King Clancy Memorial Trophy (2004) and the Mark Messier Leadership Award (2009), which both honor his guidance and humanitarian accomplishments on and off the ice, and it’s clear how valuable Iginla was to his teams.
At no point was his valued leadership more apparent than after the 2009-2010 campaign. Once heralded as the greatest player in the world following the Flames’ loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final, six years later the team failed to make the postseason for the first time since that special run. Iginla accepted complete blame for the team’s disappointing season, admitting that he didn’t do enough to help the Flames succeed, scoring only 70 points that season. His leadership was among the greatest the league has ever seen and his skill set was right at the top during his playing time, but there are plenty of other Hall of Fame superstars that are championship-less just like Iginla.
The first name that often comes to mind is the Boston Bruins’ Cam Neely. For years, Bostonians had a complex about the fact that one of their most beloved players –and current team president – never won the Stanley Cup, in fact he never even played in the Stanley Cup Final. Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2005, an honor some fans still question due to his limited playing, Neely racked up 395 goals and 694 points over the course of his 13-year career, one that saw the right winger play less than 50 games in five consecutive seasons – and also appear in the 1994 film Dumb and Dumber as Sea Bass, a rugged diner patron that looks to assault the two protagonists. But it’s hard to argue a case for Neely as the greatest to never win, especially given Iginla’s body of work – plus his statistics blow Neely’s away.
Most of the players that come to mind have since retired but there’s one current star at the same caliber as Iginla and that’s Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks. Sure, Henrik and Daniel Sedin are up there but no one, now that Iginla is out of the mix, has suffered longer – or been as productive – to get his name etched on the cup than Thornton. For 20 seasons, 13 of which have been in San Jose, Thornton led the Sharks’ regular season onslaught in the Western Conference, only to be routinely disappointed every spring – though the team did earn a Stanley Cup berth in 2015-2016, losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The 39-year-old former first overall pick has amassed 1,030 assists and 1,427 points in 1,493 games with 123 points in 160 postseason games. Not to mention he won his only Art Ross Trophy and Hart Trophy during the same season (2006). He managed to earn those trophies while playing for two different teams as he was traded from Boston to San Jose in November – the only player in history to accomplish that. Thornton is also just the third player, behind Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, in history to record back-to-back 90 assist seasons. Add on several San Jose franchise records, and one hell of an amazing beard, and Thornton makes a strong case against Iginla – and let’s not forget, he’s returning on a one-year deal this season, so there’s still time.
Mats Sundin, much like Neely, never sniffed a Stanley Cup Final appearance, spending much of his time in purgatory, on a Toronto Maple Leafs team that provided him with little supporting cast. As the first overall pick in 1989 – the first European-born player selected at the top spot – he failed to make the postseason in five of his 13 years with Toronto, including three first round exits on top of that. But that didn’t stop the Hall of Famer from putting up monster numbers. In 1,386 games, Sundin scored 564 goals and 1,349 points and had an impressive 82 points in 91 postseason games – an impressive almost point per game, given that the Swedish native’s career spanned almost two decades. However, the nine-time All Star’s hardware shelf looks pretty baron, with just a Mark Messier Leadership Award (2008) to go with several NHL records, including most points by a Swedish-born player as well as being one of three players to record 20 or more goals in 17 of their first 20 seasons. Like Iginla, Sundin is beloved in the city he spent most of his career, viewed with an almost folk hero kind of status, though he never quite stood out in comparison to the highly-touted talent he played against. This one might be a toss-up between the two and is definitely worth debating, however Iginla likely gets the nod as the better player.
Now, Brad Park is an interesting name because he played defense. When comparing a defenseman to an offensive player, it’s a little like comparing apples and oranges – especially for a d-man that played the bulk of his career in the 1970s, when the position was much less offensive-minded. In any other era, this guy would be a household name. Even still, the former second overall pick tallied 896 points in 1,113 career games and 125 points in 161 postseason games, while finishing second for the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman an unprecedented six times (1970, 1971, 1972, 1974, 1976, 1978), behind the greatest defenseman of all-time Bobby Orr and another Hall of Famer, Denis Potvin. Not to mention, Park finished ninth in scoring following the 1974 season and, other than Orr, that just did not happen back then. He lost in the Final three times, running into a dynasty each time. Park has the numbers and the accolades but it’s just tough to say outright that he’s better, since it’s a completely different position. It’s kind of a shame that Park has gotten lost in the mix all of these years later, the guy had a ton of talent.
But, the biggest talent – and the leader prior to Iginla’s announcement – would have to be Marcel Dionne, who spent the bulk of his career with the Los Angeles Kings. Dionne played 12 seasons in Los Angeles on a team that just couldn’t make any noise in the postseason, with first or second round exits throughout his tenure. That didn’t stop Dionne from completely dominating on the ice, despite his small stature at 5-foot-9. In 1,348 games, Dionne produced a whopping 1,040 assists and 1,771 points – good for sixth all-time. Despite a lack of playoff experience, he still managed 45 points in 49 postseason games. Dionne won an Art Ross Trophy (1980), two Lester B. Pearson Trophies (1979, 1980) and two Lady Byng Trophies (1975, 1977) for sportsmanship, basically sealing a first ballot Hall of Fame induction in 1992. While Dionne might not be on the Mount Rushmore of NHL legends, he’s certainly nearby on the bench as one of the greatest to ever play the game. No way can Iginla be placed ahead of him – he’s still the greatest to never hoist the Stanley Cup. And that’s a travesty, given what he – and all the guys mentioned – brought to the game.
Iginla was a rare breed of player, a hybrid that doesn’t come around too often in today’s game. He had size, skill and the ability to outmuscle the majority of his opponents. His work ethic was second to none and, more importantly, he seemed like a guy that enjoyed the game and had fun playing it. There will never be another player like him, especially in Calgary and he will be missed around the league, for sure.