It would be a nice touch if Chris Pronger’s last act as captain of the Philadelphia Flyers was to endorse Claude Giroux as the next captain of the Flyers.
The 38-year-old Pronger, who has won a Stanley Cup and a Hart Trophy but only played in 13 games last season, will shock everyone and his brother if he returns to the game he played so well for 20 years. (Brother Sean Pronger reinforced common league belief when he told Deadspin on Friday, “I don’t think he’ll play again.”) But on Monday the current captain was hanging around Flyers training camp, watching in civvies.
Wouldn’t it be cool to learn that he handed his “C” to GM Paul Holmgren and coach Peter Laviolette this week and said, “Here. This belongs to Giroux now”?
Because even if Giroux’s sweater is not officially marked with the letter of a leader, for all intents and purposes, he’s been the captain of the team since concussion symptoms took Pronger out of the lineup on Nov. 19, 2011.
“It’s gotta be hard on (Chris) and his family. Anything we can do to help him, we’re going to do it, but we seriously hope he’s going to get better,” Giroux said in June, when we interviewed him at the NHL Awards. “I’m not going to lie. (Me and Holmgren) talked about (the captaincy), but that’s more of a question for Paul Holmgren, and we’re not in a rush. Obviously we have a lot of leaders on the team. Kimmo (Timonen) and Danny (Briere) have been captains before, and a guy like Scott Hartnell can wear the ‘C’ too. He’s a pretty good leader. At the end of the day it doesn’t matter who has the ‘C’; it’s how you play on the ice and how you act off the ice.”
On the ice, the 25-year-old Giroux has improved significantly in each of his four seasons, culminating with last year’s 93-point performance that earned him third place in the overall scoring race, second place in the assist race (65 to Henrik Sedin’s 67), and his face on the cover of Electronic Arts’ NHL 13. It’s the result of increased ice time, more special-teams responsibility, and maturing under the leadership of guys like Pronger and last year’s 40-year-old linemate, Jaromir Jagr, who signed with the Dallas Stars after his contract ended.
“Myself and Hartnell saw the passion (Jagr) had for the game and it made us enjoy it a little bit more,” said Giroux, who wanted the future Hall of Famer to return to Philly. “I had more responsibilities on the penalty kill, the power-play and five-on-five.”
But if captaincy can be crystallized into a single shift, it would be the very first one of the Flyers’ series-clinching Game 6 of opening round of the 2012 playoffs versus bitter Pennsylvania rivals, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“When the best player in the world comes up to you and says, ‘I don’t know who you’re planning on starting tonight, but I want that first shift… that says everything you need to know about Claude Giroux right there,” Laviolette told reporters after his team’s victory. “He made sure the Flyers moved on to the second round.”
His wish to start the game granted, Giroux would wait a scant five seconds before laying out another “best player in the world,” Sidney Crosby, with a hard, clean hit that would set the tone for the game.
He’d wait just 27 seconds longer to streak into the Pens’ zone and snipe the opening goal past Marc-Andre Fleury.
In a half-minute of work, Giroux, who at the time led all playoff players in goals, assists, points and plus/minus, had damaged the confidence of an all-star goalie and dumped the opposition’s premier player on his ass.
“I kinda asked him if I could have the first shift, and it wasn’t a problem for him. It ended up being a pretty good shift, and we were able to win that game,” Giroux explained after the season. Which is kinda like saying McDonald’s makes “pretty good” sausage-and-egg McMuffins. “Anytime you have a chance to play against your rivals in the playoffs, it’s real easy to motivate yourself to play your best. We know they have a couple of the best players in the world, and that’s why we played well. We respected the way (Evgeni) Malkin and Crosby play, and we knew we had to play our best defensively or they were going to hurt us.”
With NBC sure to jump all over the Pens-Flyers rivalry — a tussle that should only be heightened with a short, conference-exclusive schedule and the blood spilled in that opening playoff round — focus will zero in on the competitive juices between Crosby and Giroux, who accused No. 87 of hacking in the faceoff circle. (Giroux needed double wrist surgery in the offseason.) Even though the Flyers eliminated the Penguins last season, the Pens are early Vegas favourites to win the 2013 Stanley Cup.
“That’s why you play hockey. You want to challenge the best player on their side. Anything you do in life, you want to be the best at it. I have a lot of respect for Crosby; he’s one of the best players in the league, and he’s pretty much won everything in his life. I took it as a challenge to play against him, and I was lucky to go head to head with him,” Giroux said.
After the Pens series, you’ll recall, Giroux’s Flyers lost out to the eventual Cup finalist New Jersey Devils. But what you might have forgotten is that Philly’s star wasn’t in the lineup for that series’ decisive game; Giroux was serving a one-game suspension for delivering an illegal check to the head of Devils defenceman Dainius Zubrus. Ironic, considering that Giroux himself had suffered a concussion in December 2011, when he was accidentally hit by teammate Wayne Simmonds’ knee. Giroux had another scare — deemed a minor neck injury by the same doctor who treated Crosby and Jonathan Toews — during the lockout when he was hit high while racking up Xbox-like stats for the German league’s Eisbaren Berlin (19 points in nine games).
“The game is so fast now, headshots are going to happen whether you like it or not. Guys gotta make sure they’re more responsible. Just my suspension this year — the last thing I want to do is give a headshot to a guy, because I had a concussion. It’s the worst. There’s nothing you can do but be more responsible. The game is fast. You gotta react fast and protect yourself better,” Giroux said. “When you see a guy like Prongs with his post-concussion, he’s struggling a bit. You don’t want to see that. It’s OK to take a couple games off to make sure the headaches go away. Hopefully Chris gets a lot better.”
Philly fans hope the Flyers can improve, too, especially after seeing a trio of former Flyers — Mike Richards, Simon Gagne, Jeff Carter — raise the Cup last spring.
“It’s a little painful, I’m not going to lie. Your dream in life is to play in the NHL. Then once you make it, your dream is to win the Cup. I think the world of Richie, Cartsy and Gaggy, but to see them hoist the Cup…” Giroux stops. “They deserve it, I don’t want to take away from them. They’re good players; they work hard. But you want to be in that position. It’s not easy, but it’s on my to-do list.”
More immediate, however, is finding this year’s linemate to replace Jagr. And early indications are that Brayden Schenn is gunning for that spot alongside Hartnell and Giroux. If only Schenn can translate his NHL video game prowess into the real deal…
“I used to play the game with my roommate Brayden Schenn and he would kick my ass every time. Since I hate losing to him, we wouldn’t play that game anymore,” Giroux said.
The EA coverboy prefers a more simplified take on digital hockey.
“What about that game where you play hockey and you choose whether to be a fat guy, a skinny guy, or a tall guy? Is that Sega? I think it’s just Nintendo. I used to play that game with my buddies when I was young. I would put the fat guy in the slot to take the shot, and the little guys would just stroll everywhere.”
See? The captain-to-be already has a game plan.
Jokes aside, the time is now — before the season starts — to make the transition official. This is a young team, and Giroux’s captaincy could mean a decade of stability with the “C,” which has already changed jerseys seven times since Eric Lindros led the players from 1994 to 2000.
“It would be a great honour, obviously, with all the great captains that have been with the Flyers — (Bobby) Clarke and Lindros and (Eric) Desjardins, just to name a few. It’s a responsibility, but that’s what you play for — to be a leader and show the way,” Giroux said. “If I get that responsibility, I’ll do my best.”
He’s ready, Chris.