Just months removed from winning a Memorial Cup for the ages with the London Knights, Dan Girardi was having a rough moment. The undrafted defenceman had been invited to and quickly released from New York Rangers training camp in 2005, then spent all of two or three days with the Rangers’ AHL affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack, before getting cut there, too.
“I remember sitting at the airport with one of the guys I played with in London (Bryan Rodney),” Girardi says. “He was [cut from] the same camp and I was like, ‘Oh my God, what are we going to do?’ We were literally sitting there talking about, ‘What’s the next step?’”
Girardi returned home and had serious conversations about becoming a member of the Brock Badgers university team that played about a 15-minute drive from where he grew up in Welland, Ont. Ultimately, though, he opted for a different path.
“I [went with my dad], got a Ford Explorer — obviously I didn’t pay for it,” Girardi says with a chuckle. “The next day we loaded it right up and drove it to Charlotte, North Carolina. I said, ‘I’m going to give the NHL dream a try.’”
The decision to make that trip south to join the ECHL’s Charlotte Checkers could not have worked out any better for Girardi, who — just a couple of weeks before this current season began — made another important call when he chose to retire after 13 NHL seasons. The 35-year-old thought long and hard about trying to play another year or two, but family can’t follow hockey forever. Early next summer, the Girardi crew will return to settle for good in the Niagara region he and his wife, Pamela, grew up in.
Until he left for the Ontario Hockey League’s Barrie Colts at 16, Girardi had played all of his hockey in Welland, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend. He started in tyke and moved all the way up to eventually skate for the Jr. B Welland Cougars. Through the years, he also logged countless hours on the outdoor ice at Chippawa Park.
“I was there all the time with my dad (Mark), losing pucks in the snowbanks,” Girardi recalls.
During his first year in Barrie, Girardi split time between the Colts and the Jr. A Couchiching Terriers. In Year 2, he lacerated his spleen in an exhibition game and missed two-thirds of the season. Then, as an 18-year-old, he was part of an in-season trade with the Guelph Storm.
“That was kind of where my OHL career started going in the right direction,” he says.
In 2004, Girardi was part of a Guelph team that claimed the OHL championship, but failed to win a game at the Memorial Cup. Twelve months later, he was an over-age player on a loaded Knights outfit that downed Sidney Crosby and the Rimouski Oceanic on home ice to win a tournament that drew loads of attention thanks to Crosby, a 31-game undefeated streak by London in the regular season and the fact there was no NHL playoff hockey on the go thanks to a lockout that crushed the 2004-05 campaign.
“Playing against Sidney Crosby, the next big thing, at home; it was a really awesome feeling,” says Girardi.
While that high had long dissipated by the time he was waiting on a flight out of Hartford with Rodney, Girardi bounced back quickly. It took him about three weeks of playing in the ECHL with the Checkers to get promoted to the AHL during the 2005-06 season. The next year, he joined the Rangers after the NHL All-Star Game and never looked back.
As an undrafted guy who’d pushed his way up to a team featuring the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Brendan Shanahan and Martin Straka, Girardi couldn’t believe where that decision to jump in the Explorer had taken him.
“I don’t think I said a word for the first two years on the plane,” he says, an especially noteworthy point given Girardi’s gregarious personality.
For most of the next decade, Girardi — who says he never took one day for granted in ‘The Show’ — formed a rock-solid duo with defence partner Ryan McDonagh on Rangers teams that were always extremely competitive, but never quite got over the hump. He moved to Tampa Bay in 2017 and played two years with the Lightning, another squad that couldn’t strike the magical playoff formula. When it became clear returning to Tampa as an unrestricted free agent would not be possible this past summer, Girardi began weighing his options.
Opportunities were presented, but uprooting the entire family — son Landon is nine, daughter Shaye is six — is tough no matter what kind of promises get made.
“You just don’t know, right?” he says. “I would have been pretty disappointed if I moved everyone to a brand new city — wherever it was — get the kids set up in school, get my son in hockey and then [maybe] I end up not playing or being in and out of the lineup.”
Things began to crystalize for Girardi, and he decided to hang up the skates 73 outings shy of the 1,000-game barrier he would have been honoured to hit. And while he also would have loved to add a Cup ring to his resumé, Girardi can feel very good about the fact that, from 2007 through 2019, only six NHLers skated in more playoff contests than his 143. Girardi was also just recently usurped by Chicago’s Brent Seabrook as the league’s all-time blocked-shots leader, a stat the NHL officially began tracking in 2005-06.
“I was good at not thinking about it during the game,” he says. “Like, ‘Man, I have to go block Ovi’s one-timer on the power play.’ It was second nature; it wasn’t even a thought.”
Girardi says he takes much pride in all those bruises and the feedback he’s received in retirement about being a fantastic teammate, the kind who always knew when to lead with his lighthearted personality and when the moment called for a more serious tone.
While he’s doing a weekly podcast and has appeared on the NHL Network, Girardi’s top focus is working with Landon’s Tampa Bay Jr. Lightning squirt squad. He runs the defence, while the team’s forwards are in good, Hall of Fame hands, being instructed by Lightning legend Vinny Lecavalier.
Because his kids were already entrenched in school, Girardi said the plan all along — if he didn’t play somewhere else — was to stay in Tampa one more year before moving back home. Next June, the family will transition to their house on the Niagara River, and Girardi hopes to stay behind the bench wherever Landon winds up playing.
“I try not to get too crazy with the nine-year-olds, but I want them to succeed,” he says with a laugh.
It’s hard not to get carried away when you know what’s possible.