By Kristina Rutherford in Philadelphia
By Kristina Rutherford in Philadelphia
With a newfound maturity focusing the same fierce spark, Claude Giroux is right back where he's supposed to be — among the NHL's most dangerous competitors.

Claude Giroux is in a two-man race, it’s just that he’s the only one of the competitors who knows it right this second. In the middle of what should be a casual pre-practice warmup skate, the Philadelphia Flyers captain passes teammate Travis Konecny, and with a tap on Konecny’s shin pads, Giroux starts gunning it, wordlessly declaring this a sprint. Konecny responds as fast as his legs can carry him, but he’s already way behind. As Giroux approaches the red centre ice paint, he sticks out his front foot like a speed skater, then throws up his arms with a “Woo!” The race, apparently, is over — and there’s no question who won.

About an hour later, Giroux sits in the Flyers’ practice dressing room scratching his reddish-blonde beard and saying “umm” while he thinks about how best to describe himself off the ice. Barefoot after the morning’s practice, last season’s fourth-place finisher in MVP voting eventually settles on one of the most generic and oft-used hockey player labels of all time: “I’m easygoing,” Giroux says. “I’m a pretty simple guy.”

“What?” says long-time teammate, Wayne Simmonds, head shaking, when he catches wind of his buddy’s self-assessment. “He’s not easygoing at all.”

No, by all accounts — aside from Giroux’s own — he’s far from it. If you have a meal with the man who tallied more points last season than anybody but Connor McDavid, chances are he’ll speed eat so he can finish before you, and then he might make fun of you for eating like a bird. Don’t beat Giroux in ping pong. Or cards. Or golf. Or bowling, which he loves second only to hockey. If you do, he’ll likely demand rematch after rematch until he wins. “He’s one of the most ferocious people I’ve met when it comes to competing,” Simmonds says. “He’s very intense, and he can’t sit around for more than five minutes at a time — he has to be on the go constantly. He’s very impatient.”

In other words, Giroux, No. 15 on Sportsnet’s 2018–19 list of the NHL’s top 100 players, is just the type of leader needed for a franchise and a passionate fan base that have both no doubt grown impatient, too. It has been six seasons since Philadelphia last won a playoff round, and you needn’t remind anyone in the cheesesteak capital that they haven’t hoisted the Stanley Cup since back-to-back victories in 1974 and 1975, that the last six trips to the Final, most recently in 2010, have ended in sadness. The good news for Philadelphia is, thanks to some savvy and patient moves by general manager Ron Hextall, this is a team loaded with young talent and boasts a seemingly bright future (along with a new raggedy, orange, googly-eyed mascot named Gritty, who is aces). The core is here, even stronger now thanks to the return of winger James van Riemsdyk, and as 20-year-old goalie Carter Hart develops in the wings — a possible future solution to the question mark in net — this team is going to be a contender once again. That also means its captain should get the attention he’s due. After an injury-filled 2016–17 campaign, Giroux made a couple of adjustments last season and re-emerged as one of the league’s elite, with a career-high 102 points and a league-leading 68 assists. And while his young teammates like to remind Giroux that he’s getting up there in age, if you ask the 30-year-old, the best is yet to come. “I feel good about my game,” Giroux says, his orange t-shirt soaked with sweat, “but I know I can play better.”

Shifted to the wing and healthy enough to play all 82 games, Giroux netted a career-high 102 points last season — second-most in the NHL.

The moment Ray Giroux knew his son was going to love this game came in the family’s living room in little Hearst, Ont. when Claude was two. The kid’s eyes were glued to the TV during the first period of an NHL game Ray had on, though Ray can’t remember what teams were playing. When the first period ended, Claude asked if they could play, and so out came the sticks and a ball and Claude’s too-big skates, which Ray tied up, and they played on the carpet. “When the game started again, he put his stick down and we watched the second period,” Ray says. “He was just staring at the TV, and I thought: ‘Oh my God, that’s pretty young to watch hockey like that.’”

Giroux was two-and-half when he started playing on ice in Hearst, the site of two rinks and some 5,000 people. At five, he played up with eight-year-olds, and began starring with the Hearst Lumber Kings, though never at a higher level than ‘A,’ since there wasn’t one on offer. The family moved to Ottawa when Giroux was 14 because his older sister Isabelle was attending university there and Ray could find more business as an electrician. Right around that time, Giroux had made hockey his focus, giving up his other passion. “Weirdly,” he admits now, “I like bowling a lot.” But bowling tournaments were interfering with hockey games, so his competitive career in the alleys ended before his first year of high school.

In Ottawa, Giroux played AA, the highest level available, and led his team in scoring for two seasons. But the next couple years, he was largely overlooked: Passed over at the OHL draft in 2004, he missed nearly half the next season with mononucleosis and was undrafted again in 2005. “He was not finished growing up,” Ray explains. “He had mono — everyone was scared [to draft him].” But Giroux made the QMJHL’s Gatineau Olympiques as a walk-on, and by season’s end in 2006, was named to the league’s all-rookie team, with 103 points in 69 games. That June, Flyers then-general manager Bobby Clarke walked up to the podium to announce the team’s 22nd pick. “Philadelphia selects, from Gatineau of the Quebec Junior League, umm, whoops I forget,” Clarke said. After a beat, he remembered: “Claude Giroux!”

Nobody was forgetting Giroux’s name a couple of seasons later, though. His first full year in the NHL, No. 28 scored the deciding goal in a shootout to send the Flyers to the 2010 playoffs. And then, led by a cast that also included Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Chris Pronger and Daniel Brière, the seventh-seeded Flyers made it all the way to the Final. They lost in six games, to Chicago. “When we lost in the Finals, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll be back here again,’” says Giroux, who put up 21 points in that post-season, at age 21. “You just don’t realize how tough it is — you take it for granted.

“I was a young kid and that run was unbelievable. But to be able to do that when you’re older,” he says, shaking his head. “That would be really amazing.”

'Umm, whoops I forget...'
Giroux's name wasn't exactly up in lights after his lone season with the Olympiques. In fact, then-Flyers GM Bobby Clarke forgot it briefly when announcing the team's 22nd-overall pick in 2006.

Ivan Provorov figured something was up, but he was too tired to think much about it. The Flyers had just arrived in Toronto, and the Russian-born defender needed some rest, so he didn’t worry about the fact that when he checked into his hotel room, there’d been just one key in the envelope instead of the usual two (the second for insurance, in case he lost the first). “I walked into my room and I went straight to bed,” Provorov recalls. His roommate, Konecny, came in soon after. A few seconds later, Provorov was startled right out of his bed and Konecny was yelling in alarm.

Giroux had jumped out of their closet.

“He is 30, but sometimes you can’t tell,” says a grinning Konecny, who’s 21. Shayne Gostisbehere, 25, takes it even further: “He’s a child,” the towering defenceman says. “He’s a kid.”

“He’s got that vision that not a lot of guys in the league have. Maybe not anybody. He might be, if not the best passer in the league and the best offensive threat, he’s right up there.”

Giroux is soft-spoken in interviews, but he is a renowned prankster on this team, the keeper of all things light on practice days and one of the chattiest players you’ll find on the ice, too. While he swears he’s less talkative during games than he was in his early 20s, Simmonds respectfully disagrees. “Guys on the ice will be like, ‘Does this guy ever shut up?’” Simmonds says, and the answer is an emphatic no. “He literally skates around and he’ll talk, and it’s not like he’s constantly chirping, but he’ll talk about things to throw guys off their games, he’ll say stupid things, a lot of things I can’t say on tape recorder. He annoys a lot of people.” Though people, to Giroux, are “pigeons.” “He makes bird noises at them, too,” Simmonds says.

When van Riemsdyk signed a five-year deal with the Flyers over the summer, Giroux Tweeted: “Excited to have my favourite pigeon back.”

Simmonds notes that his long-time teammate never shuts up on the ice, sometimes taking 'chirping' to a literal level: "He makes bird noises."

While Giroux is young at heart, the reason the recently married forward had the career year he did last year, he says, is because he grew up. Not just because he turned 30 last January, either. Two seasons ago, Giroux had hip and abdominal surgery, and while he played in all 82 games, he had just 14 goals and 58 points, his lowest total since the shortened 2012–13 lockout season. Age caught up to him. “When I was younger, I didn’t really take care of my body,” he explains. “Rolling out, doing those little workouts to make sure you stay on top of things, I didn’t do that. When you’re young, you don’t feel pain so you’re like, ‘Why should I roll out? Why would I do that? I feel great.’ But it catches up to you. You learn from that. I’m a little bit more mature now and I know I have to do those kinds of things.”

Gostisbehere noticed the change in his teammate. “He was pretty hard on himself,” the defender says of the time after that 2016–17 season. “He won’t like me saying this, but he’s obviously getting up there in age — we like to let him know, we’re a young team and he’s definitely an elder. But just the way he’s taken a look at himself not only on the ice, but off the ice, taking care of himself. I think it’s really helped him.”

Being healthy last season was one change for Giroux, the other was his position. After nearly a decade at centre, coach Dave Hakstol moved Giroux to his off-wing, on the left side of the Flyers’ top line. “At first I was a little surprised, but I wasn’t against it,” Giroux says. The move paid off: For the first time in his NHL career, Giroux says, he spent an entire season alongside a consistent linemate, centreman Sean Couturier. “We were able to get that chemistry early on,” says Giroux, who applauds Couturier’s play at both ends of the ice. “We don’t even have to talk to each other, we know what we’re thinking.”

“You can see the maturity in his game. He waits for his chances, he doesn’t force anything unless it needs to be forced.”

“The move to wing really allowed ‘G’ to exploit team’s defences,” Simmonds adds, and the same goes for the captain’s linemates. Playing alongside Giroux, Couturier had a career year (76 points) and Konecny, who manned the right wing for 41 games on that top line, had 20 goals. In 40 games on another line, meanwhile, Konecny had four goals. “Honestly, just find open ice,” Konecny says, of the trick to playing alongside Giroux. “A lot of times when you don’t even see the play, the puck ends up on your stick. He’s got that vision that not a lot of guys in the league have. Maybe not anybody. He might be, if not the best passer in the league and the best offensive threat, he’s right up there.”

Provorov agrees: “He can make cross-ice backhand saucer passes — anything. He can deliver the puck anywhere. That makes him super deadly, and guys try to take away passing lanes, and when they do that it gives him time to shoot and score.” Last regular season, Giroux was involved in more than 40 per cent of the Flyers’ goals.

Simmonds has been playing with Giroux the past six seasons, and says he’s seen his teammate’s smarts on the ice increase. “You can see the maturity in his game,” the winger says. “He waits for his chances, he doesn’t force anything unless it needs to be forced. With the patience he has and the passing ability that he has, he opens up a lot of passing lanes and scoring opportunities for other players. I think his game’s come full circle.”

'I'll be back here again'
Making the finals as a 21-year-old in 2010, Giroux assumed he'd be back in no time. Nearly a decade later, he says another shot at the Cup "would be really amazing."

While he was a quiet leader in his early days in Philadelphia, Giroux has taken the reins in the dressing room, too. When the Flyers went on a 10-game losing streak last season that stretched from early November to early December, the captain called a meeting. It wasn’t negative — far from it. “It was making sure everyone was close-knit, so those 10 games didn’t ruin us,” Simmonds says. The Flyers won their next six. “You look at that, he really showed his true colours as a leader,” says Gostisbehere. “He got the team out of a rut.”

Fast-forward to the end of the season, and the Flyers were a point out of a playoff berth, one loss away from missing the post-season for the second straight year. Giroux scored a hat trick, the Flyers won and they advanced to the playoffs, where they lost to Pittsburgh in the first round.

Certainly that’s part of the reason why Giroux didn’t garner the attention other stars across the NHL did last season, because his post-season run lasted only six games. While his teammates recognize his value on a daily basis, many feel he hasn’t been getting his due of late, not like years ago, when Giroux was on the cover of EA Sports NHL 13. Not that you’d ever hear him complain about a lack of attention. “There’s a lot of guys that are talked about in the league, those big names, and I definitely don’t think he’s been mentioned enough,” Konecny says. “He deserves that recognition.”

“He should be in those conversations,” Simmonds adds. “He’s right back where he should be. Maybe he wasn’t 100-per cent healthy the last couple years, but [last season] you can see it, his skating, his explosiveness. He showed confidence from Day 1, and it just carried him. He’s one heck of a player.”

One heck of a competitor, too. Simmonds grins thinking back to one of his favourite Giroux moments, which came while they were bowling in Sweden with their then-fiancés. “My fiancé beat him, and I remember we were trying to leave and he said, ‘No, we’re not leaving. We’re finishing this. Let’s keep going!’” Simmonds says.

“If he loses, we’re playing until he wins. It really never finishes otherwise, so sometimes you just have to let him win and call it a day. He never finishes with a loss.”

Easygoing? Hardly. And fans in the City of Brotherly Love will be glad to hear it.

Photo Credits

Opening Image and Design by Drew Lesiuczok.
Getty (2); Chris O'Meara/AP Photo; Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images; Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI/Getty Images; Jim McIsaac/Getty Images.