In the past 21 seasons, Jarome Iginla has appeared in six NHL All-Star Games, led the league in scoring once, led the league in goals twice, set records for goals, points, and games played during his 17-year stint with the Calgary Flames, and won two Olympic gold medals with the Canadian national team. He’s also known as one of hockey’s fiercest competitors.
But when the Colorado Avalanche right wing unlaces his skates, he is just as well known for being one of the game’s nicest guys. Iginla participates in many community events and donates $2,000 to charity for every goal he scores. In this CSJ conversation with managing editor Chad Bonham, he talks about his unique upbringing, why he feels so compelled to serve the community, and how his faith plays a major role in his life:
Chad Bonham: You have an interesting background with a Nigerian father who is a Christian and an American mother who is a Buddhist. How did that impact you growing up?
Jarome Iginla: It was normal to me, but I don’t know if it was normal. My father actually grew up Muslim, but has been a Christian for a long time. My parents divorced when I was about one year old. I only remember my parents as being divorced. My mom put me in Catholic school, but she’s always been Buddhist so that’s a little unique. Growing up I didn’t have a lot of other friends that had Buddhist parents. That was different. Yeah there was (some confusion). My mom was very good about it. She was very open. In that area I had a lot of questions because (Buddhists) do believe in different things. My mom was good at answering. She didn’t force it on me by any means.
Bonham: What about your own faith? How did that develop over the years?
Iginla: I always believed in God. But I remember when I was 14 I went on a hockey trip and one of my friends started talking about God. He said, “What if there’s no God?” And I said, “There has to be a God.” He got me thinking and it actually scared me for a little bit. I’d never really thought about it that deep. It was just from what I’d read. I’d never thought about it personally. So that bothered me and I tried not to think about that for a while. A year later I went to my dad and asked him about it. He suggested that I should ask God to take that fear away and if I felt peace, then I’d know that God exists. That’s probably my defining moment. I’m peaceful with that now. That was probably the most bothersome question that I can ever remember asking myself. When my dad told me that, it was probably the start of my own personal relationship.
Bonham: To what to you credit spiritual growth in your life?
Iginla: My dad has been the biggest influence on my faith. I also try to go to church in the summer and I attend when I can during the season. If I can’t get to a service, my wife and I will try to watch a televised church service.
Bonham: How do you describe what it looks like to serve others?
Iginla: In being a Christian and serving God, I think it’s trying to be a positive influence in the lives of people you come into contact with and your friends and your family. With all the gifts that have been given to us, we should make the most of them. Some people are more outspoken and some people glorify God in different ways. So I think everyone has been given unique gifts and we all play a different role.
Bonham: Who modeled serving for you?
Iginla: My grandparents (on my mother’s side) are extremely generous people. My mom and dad divorced when I was at a young age. My dad was going to school and my mom was raising me financially as a single parent and needed help. My grandparents had eight kids. They had tons of grand kids. They had already done their parenting and still they took me practices after school when my mom couldn’t because she was working. They got me involved in as many activities as they could. I always went to their house after school and I always felt loved. I never felt like a burden. When I look back on it, I realize that they were second parents to me and that was very generous of them. They were huge examples in my life. Without their help, I wouldn’t have been able to be in sports. Who knows what would have happened.
My father has always been a real strong influence on my faith and questions that I had. He was someone I leaned on. It’s hard to talk about serving and some of the things that we do because growing up, I learned from him that you don’t necessarily want to draw attention to yourself for doing it. But I would see different things. People would come to him on the street needing money even if it was just a couple of dollars. He wouldn’t just give it to them but he’d talk to them and ask them what their situation was. But those types of things had an influence on me as far as giving and serving. As a young kid, I always wondered why those people weren’t working and he would always say, “We don’t know their story.” It might not make a difference and there’s always a debate whether or not you should help but that’s the way he felt. Sometimes he would give them 20 dollars if he felt like they were really needy or he would give them two dollars. It was just however he felt God was directing him. Those are just things that happened when I was maybe 10 years old and just to see that helped guide me.
Bonham: What are some of the things you do to impact the community?
Iginla: We worked with a program called Kids Sport (in Calgary). It helps kids be involved in sports who financially might not be able to have the opportunity. Families can turn to it for help. It means a lot to me. I think all kids should have an opportunity to play; not just to become a professional athlete, but to enjoy themselves and make friends and learn life skills. I was very fortunate to have the support that I did and not every kid does. My wife and I also have a non-profit hockey school that’s mainly just to have fun. A lot of hockey schools have different levels. Some are very intense and help kids focus on skills. We try to teach them skills, but it’s mostly just to have some ice time in the summer and to let the kids enjoy themselves.
Bonham: What drives you to serve others?
Iginla: I’m extremely blessed in so many ways. I want to serve Christ and in doing that I want to give back in as many different ways and positive ways as I can. By serving my family and friends and others, I’m trying to say thank you to God. That’s what I’m trying to do every day.
Bonham: How does that attitude of serving translate into the way you deal with you teammates?
Iginla: I don’t think it ends. I don’t think I should turn it off. My job is being a professional athlete. I think by doing my best and trying to give everything I have and not hold anything is my responsibility and my job but also I think that’s what God would want me to do. Being a good teammate is being a good friend. It’s serving. Some people are more evangelical and I think there are all different types of Christians. By types, I mean we have different roles in serving God and getting His message out. Some are more outspoken and some are less outspoken. Some do it more quietly. Some do it through generosity of time or money. And when I talked to my dad growing up, that was part of me working on getting more comfortable with things and trying to know where I fit. I’m not as outspoken as some people and maybe more so than others, but we all have a purpose in serving.
Bonham: You’ve won two Olympic gold medals for Canada, but I would imagine that first one at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002 must have been pretty special since it broke a 50-year drought for your home country.
Iginla: That’s one the best experiences I’ve had in hockey. I got a chance to play with Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman and Joe Sacik. It’s a big adjustment. You go from playing against them to seeing your jersey hanging in the same room as theirs. It was difficult not to be in awe. Then we ended up winning the tournament. I remember the first day showing up and seeing all those jerseys hanging and seeing mine over in the corner. I was one of the younger guys and I had a makeshift area because there weren’t enough lockers. But it was a huge thrill and I think I probably took a picture or something. The gold medal game against the U.S. team probably the most exciting game I’ve been a part of. It was so fast. The fans were so passionate. Half of them were American fans and the other half was Canadian. They were going at it the whole game. It was such a good game. You get on the ice and go as hard as you can. You don’t have time to be nervous. You get off the ice and you’re nervous again because you’re watching as a fan. You want to win the gold medal so bad. It turned out the way we wanted it to turn out. It was every emotion—nervousness, excitement and adrenaline—all in one game.
Bonham: When you were a rookie, there were only a handful of NHL players from African descent. Now that the number has grown to about 30, do you feel like you have inspiring more young athletes to pursue the same opportunities?
Iginla: When I grew up, I was the only black kid on my team. I was aware of that. I really was. I was very fortunate. My teammates were always great. But sometimes there’d be a small incident here or there with another team or with some parents in the crowd. Some kids would say, “Why are you trying to be in the NHL? There’s no black players in the NHL.” I remember those questions back then and honestly, it meant so much to me to be able to say, “Oh yeah, there are black players in the NHL.” Grant Fuhr at the time was starring in Edmonton and winning Stanley Cups and he was an All-Star. Then I did try to pick out as many black players in the NHL so I could have somebody. I watched Claude Vilgrain who played in New Jersey or Tony McKegney. I am proud to be a black player in the NHL. I know how much those other guys meant to me so maybe there’s kids that are having similar questions asked of them or maybe they’re having some tough times. It would be an honor if I was at all a role model for kids that want to play in the NHL.
Bonham: What do you think is your ultimate responsibility as a Christian playing in the NHL?
Iginla: I hope people can say that I love to compete and I love to play. I truly do enjoy every day. I’m thankful for being in the NHL—even the days where you don’t win. It’s so much fun being in the NHL. I enjoy living. Every day is exciting. I’m going to do my best to try to keep going as a person. I don’t put any extra pressure on myself in those areas. I feel a responsibility to God. I believe in Jesus. That’s where my responsibility lies.
(Photos: Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images; Jarome Iginla; s.yume [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)