(photo via Sabresfreak)
As hockey fans the world over prepare to enjoy their holiday season, we here at FlamesNation wish you all the best during this festive time and have a bit of a gift for you all – the latest tome from the great Steve MacFarlane.
It’s about the incredible and unlikely rise of Flames captain Mark Giordano. We hope you like it.
“He was kind of a heavy kid who didn’t really know how to train.”
The words are from former Flames coach Jim Playfair. You’d probably never guess he was talking about Mark Giordano’s first training camp in Calgary.
To truly grasp how impressive the newest Flames captain’s rise in the NHL has been, you have to go back to the days when even he had no idea just how good a hockey player he could be.
“My first camp was the biggest eye-opener of my career,” Giordano recalls as we chat about everything from his triple-A days in Ontario to his still relatively new captaincy and outstanding charitable work in the community. “You come and you think you’re in shape. I was out of shape. My cardio was way off. I was probably a bit too heavy – I think I was weighing in at over 210, which I can’t even believe now.”
On the Flames website, he’s listed at 200 pounds now. There may not be an ounce of fat on him, though, and his strength and conditioning testing is tops on the team.
“You learn real quick,” he says with a laugh. “I felt like after that year, I developed pretty quickly off the ice, which helped me on the ice.”
On the ice Giordano always had a full tool kit of skills. Before the Flames signed him as an undrafted free agent in 2004, he had shown glimpses of a scoring touch to go along with his tough play with the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack. His first pro season with the Lowell Lock Monsters was promising, too, combining 85 penalty minutes with six goals and 16 points in 66 games in the American Hockey League, which was full of NHLers due to the lockout season of 2004-05.
“You could tell at a young age that Gio had a lot of talent,” Playfair says in that same interview on Sportsnet960’s morning show in October. “He learned how to work.”
Did he ever.
And now, he’s on a short list of undrafted NHLers ever to have the C stitched on their jerseys.
“When Bob (head coach Bob Hartley) did tell me, I was excited and happy,” Giordano says. “You still feel a little bit of that shock.”
Nobody around him was surprised. He is ever-evolving as a player and, to many, his rise to the captaincy seemed inevitable years ago. Tracing his steps following that first camp experience tells a pretty spectacular story of determination.
Giordano’s second pro season included seven games in the NHL and an all-star appearance for the AHL’s Omaha Knights thanks to leading the team in scoring with 16 goals and 58 points. He was with the Flames for nearly all of his third year and was widely touted as a diamond in the rough, though Darryl Sutter still seemed ambivalent at times towards the younster, scratching him throughout the season and to start the playoffs. By the end of the year, Giordano wasn’t sure he would ever establish himself as an NHL regular. The early ups and downs led to a contract dispute and he signed in Russia for the 2007-08 season, knowing it could potentially mean the end of his NHL aspirations.
So while others might have put money on him taking over for Jarome Iginla when the longtime captain left Calgary, Giordano never thought his path would lead him to a leadership role, nevermind becoming a captain — something that even growing up he wasn’t all that familiar with.
“Going way back, probably Triple-A hockey when I was growing up I was a captain once,” Giordano says. “But coming up through pro, it’s been more of an (alternate) captain. I think I was an (alternate) captain in the American League for a year or two and in the NHL for a couple of years. I haven’t worn the C that much in my life.”
When he was first signed by the Flames, it was the furthest thing from his mind.
“My first few years, it was really, was I going to be an NHL player?” he says.
Rhett Warrener, one of the Flames’ veteran blueliners when Giordano joined the franchise, had a pretty good idea early on the youngster was capable of carving out a role. He just wasn’t sure it would be so large.
“I never thought he’d be this good. Not everyone excels to this point. He’s a top two or three defenceman on every team,” says Warrener.
“First impression was pretty raw. He could skate and he was willing, but it was very rambunctious, untapped emotion. But with all that excitement, he was intent to listen. He could always skate, he could always stickhandle, he could always hit hard, and he was always willing to get in a scrap. What more do you want?”
The Russian Gamble
For Giordano, it was a fair contract offer he craved when his entry-level deal expired. Although he hadn’t yet found his consistency as a pro, his promise was obvious with seven goals and 15 points in 48 games in 2006-07. But then-GM Darryl Sutter wasn’t offering a one-way deal, and the idea of having to continue to bounce back and forth to the minors wasn’t too appealing to Giordano. That off-season, the Flames signed veteran Anders Eriksson which meant Giordano would have to overcome a two-contract and a blueline stuffed with established NHL regulars to get ice time with the Flames.
IN response, he flirted with the idea of heading to Europe, then settled on the Moscow Dynamo in Russia.
“At that time, I didn’t feel like the contract they offered me was very good, which was fine,” Giordano says. “I just felt like for my career, and for my life, I was going to go explore other things because I didn’t know if I was a full-time NHL player."
“I was still probably a number-seven guy if I would have stayed.”
The move worked out well. Giordano was a top pairing player in the Russian super league. The increased ice time and responsibility improved his skating and strength. He became a better player in Russia.
Although many fans and pundits figured Giordano was just another fringe player who had to flee to Europe to continue his pro career, he at the conclusion of 2006-07 and signed a three-year, one-way deal with the Flames.
“I was so happy about at that time. If you can imagine – I didn’t know if I would ever get back in the league again,” he says with a smile. “Then you feel like you have some stability in your life.”
"This Guy Does it All"
His career took off from there. Although a shoulder injury that eventually required surgery ended his breakout year prematurely in 2008-09, he was gaining attention across the league.
Legendary NHL coach turned executive Scotty Bowman considered Giordano among the most improved and underrated players in the league in 2010, and the increasingly confident rearguard was becoming the kind of player everyone in the locker-room was keen to follow.
“You can’t say enough about him. He works hard every day. He’s just the poster boy for a captain,” says alternate captain Curtis Glencross. “He’s the first guy in the weight room. He’s a great leader in the room. He leads by example. He’s not afraid to stick up for a teammate. He’s everything a captain is.
“He’s great for the city, great for the community. Everybody in this room looks up to him and he’s our leader.”
Michael Cammalleri, the other alternate captain with the Flames this season, is happy to be a teammate of Giordano’s these days. He recalls his early battles when Giordano was a rookie in the AHL. A mutual friend from the Toronto area, Mike Zigomanis, was a teammate of Giordano’s and gave Cammalleri a bit of a scouting report.
His exact words were “sneaky good,” and it didn’t take long for Cammalleri to realize that himself.
“I remember recognizing right then and there how good he was,” he says. “I was nothing but impressed, not only by the stuff he’s known for, but also his skill level and his ability to make plays.”
Having had a couple of stints alongside him as teammates now, there’s another level of appreciation for the leadership qualities Giordano possesses as well as the grit and skill that are more obvious to the opposition.
“If you look at his progression into a leader, it all starts with the way he’s earned trust and respect from the way he plays on the ice,” Cammalleri says. “He’s got a lot of things you look for in a hockey player. The leadership role, for him, I think was just a natural progression. For a guy like him, it was just him being himself. He doesn’t have to come out of his shoes at all to be a leader.“
For some, he’s also mentor. Young defencemen like TJ Brodie can find no better example of a guy with raw talent making the most of it than by looking to Giordano, who is more than willing to offer advice on how to do the same.
“It’s a good guy to look up to and try to base your game around and try to be like,” says Brodie, who first saw time with the Flames in 2010-11 and has gradually improved his own all-around game.
“Coming in, I didn’t really know what all the guys are like. I saw Giordano jump in the play a bit, and I thought he was more of an offensive guy. Then I started seeing him hit guys and block shots and I said, ‘This guy does it all.’”
The 2010-11 season was a big one for Giordano, who netted eight goals and 43 points over 82 games. And while credit can be given to Playfair for teaching him the tools of the trade at the NHL level early on, no coach gave Giordano more opportunity than Brent Sutter.
“I think when he came in as a coach it really turned me around. I started playing way more minutes in a way bigger role,” Giordano says. “That helped my confidence too. You start believing in yourself. I think that’s the biggest thing in hockey, if you can have that confidence and believe in yourself, a lot of guys are great players.“
It has taken some time, but Giordano definitely belongs in that category now.