CALGARY — Mark Giordano, arguably the best defenceman in the National Hockey League in the here and now, doesn’t even remember where he was on draft day 2001.
Going to the draft in Sunrise, Florida seemed a ridiculous idea, as he hadn’t even played major junior hockey yet at the age of 18. And if he had been this good back then, well, the Calgary Flames never would have picked him anyhow.
Down in Sunrise, the Calgary Flames were every bit as hopeless as Giordano, spending 11 draft picks on a crop of names like Andrei Taratukhin, Tomi Maki, Chuck Kobasew and David Moss. But all those players got their invites to rookie camp that summer, while Giordano took the street car over to York University to speak with coach Graham Wise about playing defence for the Yeomen.
“I had all my courses picked,” Giordano said, nearly 500 NHL games later. He would eventually sign a three-way contract with the Flames — NHL, AHL, ECHL — and today, the son of a Toronto realtor and his hair dresser wife is leading all National Hockey League defencemen with 26 points in 26 games. He is playing more than 24 minutes per night, the Flames captain and spiritual leader.
“We’re a resilient team because we have resilient players,” Flames head coach Bob Hartley likes to say. “Gio is the face of our franchise, no doubt about it. This guy fought for every second of ice time that he’s got. Went to Russia (the KHL), did it all. The beauty of Gio is, wearing the Calgary Flames captaincy, being the face of this franchise, will not change him one bit.
“He’s always the first guy at the rink, (doing) community service… He talks to the kids between periods, this is his dressing room. He does it all.”
Today, Calgary wouldn’t trade Giordano straight across for any of the 93 defencemen chosen in that 2001 draft, including names like Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis or Dennis Seidenberg. And he’ll be on the Norris Trophy ballot next to names like Duncan Keith and Shea Weber in April.
“I would never have said that,” Giordano admits. “But I have seen that, as a defenceman, you can peak at a later age, because you learn so much about not running around, using your body position. I’ve learned a lot over the last four, five years.”
Being undrafted is really just an anecdote. Many great players can tell the same story, from a 1,000-assist player like Adam Oates, to Hall of Fame goalie Ed Belfour, to 600-goal man Dino Ciccarelli. The amazing thing about Giordano is that he wasn’t anywhere close to this good even in his prime years of 24-27.
He left the NHL for the KHL’s Moscow Dynamo at age 24, returned to Calgary after a season and had two goals in 58 games. On a point per game tear this season, while defending like a wall alongside young partner TJ Brodie, Giordano has become the micro to the Calgary Flames macro.
The Flames weren’t supposed be any good this season, and instead they are very good. And Giordano? How many hockey pools were conducted from coast to coast this past September, in which the current highest scoring defenceman wasn’t even selected? After mine, I mean.
“Our forwards are pretty reliable guys. If you jump, they back you up,” said Giordano, in a noble attempt to spread the credit for his personal success. “We’re forcing the other team to turn the puck over a lot, and when you force a turnover at the blueline, it’s an opportunity for D-men to jump.”
So, why this guy? This year?
Scouts from 30 teams rolled through Owen Sound when Giordano was a 19- and 20-year-old defenceman there, and none took notice more than former Flames head amateur scout Mike Sands. He dispatched now retired Flames scout Tom Webster to take a closer look.
“I talked to (Owen Sound coach) Mike Stothers, I talked to (GM) Mike Futa up there, and they were so complimentary. They couldn’t say enough good things about his character and his qualities,” Webster said over the phone this week. “I recommended him to Darryl (then-Flames GM Sutter) as a player who we should sign. To recommend a player to Darryl Sutter was pretty plain and simple: He’d better be able to play in the NHL.
“He was willing to sign a three-way contract,” Webster continued. “Darryl’s belief was, if he’s good enough, he’ll make it in the long run. Mark was willing to sign it, because we took a chance on him. Now, you can see what’s happened.”
What’s happened is, Giordano has become perhaps more than any captain in hockey, the mirror into which every player on his team can look. Nobody in the Flames room came from further away. Nobody else had a three-way contract. No one had less given to them on the route to this dressing room than this captain.
As such, no one has more right to set the ground rules for an uncompromising team that has undergone an incredible transformation this season.
“You’re not playing on this team if you don’t play (the right way),” Giordano decreed. “First of all you have to play defence, and second of all you have to play with details. Good body position, that’s all our coaches preach.
“With every win that we’re getting here we’re getting more confident as a group. We’re believing more.”
And they in him. It’s a pretty good set up they have here in Calgary.