CALGARY – A mere 55 games into his career, Mark Giordano took a road trip few people in the hockey world figured he’d ever return from.
A contract stalemate with former Flames GM Darryl Sutter prompted the undrafted defenceman to opt for Russia over a three-way offer from Calgary.
(The third "way" being the ECHL, where Giordano originally figured he’d start his pro career.)
Many, including Sutter himself, figured they’d seen the last of the 23-year-old.
Robyn Regehr wasn’t one of them.
"The thought never crossed my mind that he would not be back in the NHL," said the longtime cornerstone of the Flames’ blueline, who’d watched Giordano develop during his first two seasons in Calgary.
"The way he approached the game – the attitude and work ethic – you knew he was going to be back. It was the Flames that put Mark in a difficult spot business-wise, making him feel he pretty much had to make that choice. He called their bluff."
Indeed, one season later, Giordano patched things up with the Flames at the Spengler Cup and signed a three-year, one-way deal to extend a career path that led him to catch Regehr in games played as a Flame.
Tuesday’s home date with Columbus marks Giordano’s 826th NHL game in Flames’ silks – a number that matches him with Regehr for the second-most games played in franchise history. Only Jarome Iginla has played more in red and gold.
"Anyone who says they saw this coming isn’t telling the full story," chuckled Regehr of the 35-year-old captain’s longevity.
"It’s just such a tremendous story right from the beginning. Undrafted and coming in under the radar, minding his business and observing and picking stuff up, working hard and continuing to improve and then going on his Russian road show. He just kept grinding it out, had major injuries and has been able to bounce back from all that. He keeps getting better and better with time to have career years late in his career. It’s almost like he’s a French wine, but I can’t say French wine for him – more like Italian wine, he gets better with age. It’s hard not to cheer for a guy like that."
Regehr sent Giordano a text Sunday, congratulating him for his latest milestone achievement – a gesture that meant plenty to the captain.
"He was THE defenceman when I came in – the No. 1 guy," said Giordano of his early memories of Regehr.
"So steady defensively, a big physical presence. He was a real good leader. He always played the right way and never cheated the game. I looked up to him for sure. I said to him yesterday it didn’t even cross my mind (he’d be approaching No. 2 on the list) because I felt like he was here a lot longer that I’ve been."
Asked if he planned to stick around long enough to catch Iginla atop the list at 1,219 games, Giordano wasn’t exactly quick to balk.
"You never know – ya, I’ll try," said the fitness freak.
"Five more years? 40 is a good round number. I’ve always said I’m going to play as long as I can."
As part of the mutual admiration club Regehr said another part of the captain’s allure is his legendary work in the community, which earned him the Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award a few years back.
This year Giordano may even be recognized as the NHL’s top defenceman, posting numbers (14 goals, 67 points and a plus-30 rating) that rank him amongst league leaders and help build a worthy case for Norris Trophy consideration.
"I would say the offensive production he’s put up here in his 30s is probably the most surprising thing," said Regehr when asked which of Giordano’s many accomplishments surprise him.
"Guys drop off their production, their effectiveness or mentally or their bodies give out, but you don’t see that with him – it’s the opposite.
"I really enjoy watching him and cheering for him because he does do it all – kills penalties, runs the power play, blocks shots and does whatever it takes to help the team win."
Much like Regehr, minus the power play load.
No wonder there are so many No. 5 jerseys dotting the Dome, which reminds Regehr of a time early in Giordano’s career when his Italian pals from Toronto put on a jersey-clad spectacle he got ribbed for for years.
"Yeah, they came to the Zamboni entrance and turned their backs so everyone could see the jersey number – kind of embarrassing there," smiled Giordano of his excited friends.
"I bet they were the only ones (wearing his jersey). They stuck out and Reggie, Rhettro (Rhett Warrener) and the boys let me know about it for a long time."
Longer than even he fathomed.