Every time he walks out of the Calgary Flames dressing room and onto the ice at the Scotiabank Saddledome, Mark Giordano passes a cluster of 18 plaques commemorating the franchise’s historical achievements, as well as a few that haven’t been realized yet. Of course, there’s Jarome Iginla’s two Rocket Richard Trophies. But, wow, the Flames have had five Calder winners? And remember when Jiri Hudler won the Lady Byng back in 2014-15? That would make a good trivia question. Three of the plaques are empty. One of them is for the Hart Trophy, which would have Iginla’s name on it had he not been robbed of the award in 2002. Another is the Selke Trophy and the third is the James Norris Memorial Trophy for the best defenseman in the NHL. This year will mark the 65th time the Norris has been handed out, and the Flames’ grand total of zero currently puts them 14 behind the Boston Bruins, 11 in arrears of the Montreal Canadiens and nine back of the Detroit Red Wings. But there’s no shame in that. The Flames are also in a dead heat with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
That could all change this June, however. There’s a good chance that when Giordano walks out of the dressing room for his first game of next season, he will pass a Norris plaque embossed with “Mark Giordano – 2018-19,” two plaques to the left and one down from the NHL Foundation Player Award that Giordano won three years ago. If that happens, he’ll probably take a moment to reflect on the journey that brought him there. At 35, Giordano would be the second-oldest first-time winner of the Norris, after former Flame Al MacInnis, who won the award with the St. Louis Blues exactly two decades ago, just shy of his 36th birthday.
Undrafted in both the OHL and NHL, Giordano once played on a three-way contract, started his pro career as a healthy scratch in the AHL, went to Russia for a year and, in the process, became one of those rare players (Blake Wheeler of the Winnipeg Jets being another) who got better with age. He’ll think about his older sister, Mia, whose name is tattooed on the inside of his left bicep. He was 14 the day his parents opened the door of their modest home in north Toronto to two policemen, who told them their daughter had been killed in a car accident on the way to the mall with a friend. Along the way, Giordano has learned a lot about the game, about himself and about other people, and how he’d like to treat them.
ON THIS NIGHT IN mid-March, Giordano is in a really good spot. His team has just decisively beaten Vegas, and he’s registered his 49th assist of the season. His 21:58 of ice time is about 2:30 less than his average, but he still spent more time playing than any other Flame. As he crosses his arms and leans back in Matthew Tkachuk’s stall, he’s kind of whistling through four missing bottom teeth as he speaks, courtesy of a high-stick that knocked two of them out and an errant puck that knocked the other two out when it caught him in the face in Pittsburgh in February. He’ll spend a couple hours of a day off in the dentist’s chair the next day, play again the night after that, then spend the following night out for dinner with a silent auction winner at an event that helps support his charitable foundation. Life is good all around. “Things have gone well for our team, but for me individually, getting recognition around the league, it feels good,” Giordano said. “I don’t care who you are. You feel good about yourself to be mentioned with guys like (Brent) Burns and (Erik) Karlsson. That’s where it really hits home, when you look at the past winners.”
Good on Giordano for not robotically mouthing the old “I’m not even thinking about it” malarkey. Of course he’s thinking about the Norris Trophy. Why wouldn’t he? He’s been around long enough to know that hockey is, if nothing, else a team game, but it stands to reason that the more he plays like a Norris Trophy contender, the better off the Flames will be as a team.
It’s also an unbelievable accomplishment for a guy in his mid-30s. To be sure, voters among the members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association will be impressed that Giordano is playing at such an elevated level at his age, and that could sway some voters. But at some point this has to stop being about Giordano the 35-year-old and simply be about how good Giordano is. After all, it’s not as though the guy has been cloistered. He’s been a top defenseman for a number of years now, hiding in plain sight. “When I was 33, I heard someone say, ‘Is this his last real good year?’ ” Giordano said. “And at 34, I was hearing the same thing, so it does motivate you. I don’t know what the numbers would look like, but my games played might be lower than the average 35-year-old in the league, so you have to take that into account, too. Growing up, I never played in the world juniors, and I had a lot of time off in the summers, so maybe that has something to do with it.”
Giordano might be on to something. He never played in any of the Under-17s, Under-18s or World Junior Championships, and he’s yet to appear in either a World Cup or Olympics. (In retrospect, he probably should’ve been on Canada’s roster in 2014, but it’s hard to argue with the selection of a team that gave up three goals the entire tournament.) But chalking it up to that would also diminish the fact he had to work that much harder to become a player back then.
Things have gone well for our team, but for me individually, getting recognition around the league, it feels good.
– Mark Giordano
Giordano went through two OHL drafts without being selected. There were 669 players taken in those drafts. The same thing happened in the NHL in 2002 and ’03, when 583 players were selected. So, during Giordano’s formative years as a player, at least 1,252 players were thought to be better pro prospects than he was.
He did, however, land with the Owen Sound Attack when then-Attack GM Michael Futa, now the assistant GM of the Los Angeles Kings, convinced him to forego a scholarship at Ferris State University to play major junior. “He looked like an Oscar statue in those days,” Futa said of Giordano. “All upper body.”
Given the inauspicious start to his career, no wonder he was thrilled when he managed to appear in 60 AHL games in his first pro season in 2004-05, a benchmark that turned his three-way ECHL-AHL-NHL deal into a two-way AHL-NHL contract. By 2005-06, he was a full-time AHL player and earned two call-ups, including the last five games of the season to join a D-corps that featured Dion Phaneuf, Andrew Ference, Roman Hamrlik, Robyn Regehr and Jordan Leopold. “When you get called up is when you say, ‘Oh s—, I can play with these guys, it’s not like they’re three steps ahead of me,’ ” Giordano said. “That was an eye-opener.”
As it was for the rest of the hockey world. This kid could play. Of the 177 defensemen who were selected in the 2002 and ’03 drafts, when Giordano was eligible, only Duncan Keith, Burns, Ryan Suter, Shea Weber, Dustin Byfuglien, Phaneuf and Brent Seabrook have more points at the NHL level – both Burns and Byfuglien have also spent considerable periods of their careers as forwards – and only those seven players, along with Jay Bouwmeester and Trevor Daley, have played more career games. Should Giordano win the Norris this season, he’ll become the first draft-eligible defenseman to win the award without having been drafted. A total of 21 players have won the Norris since Bobby Orr gave up his stranglehold on the trophy in 1975 – all of them were drafted and 12 of them are first-round picks. In fact, no Norris winner in that time has been selected lower than 70th overall, which was where the Kings took 1998 winner Rob Blake back in 1988.
There’s nothing overwhelming about Giordano’s game, but he’s refined his style of play in a big way over the years to the point where it’s a triumph of efficiency. Case in point, in mid-March he was on pace for a career-low 57 hits (though he did serve a two-game suspension for a knee-on-knee hit on Minnesota captain Mikko Koivu in December). And with 65 in 68 games, Giordano had already demolished his career high for points. “You just keep stacking quality years on top of quality years and you get the respect you deserve,” said Flames coach Bill Peters. “He’s got an unbelievable skill set, and he’s a competitive guy. He makes plays that allow you to win. Now, is that a big play defensively, is it a small, little, subtle play holding onto the puck and buying guys time to get open? He just has that sixth sense about him that he makes the right play at the right time. And when there’s a big play to be made, he’s usually in and around the action.”
Giordano has three more years remaining on his deal, which will take him to a couple months shy of his 39th birthday. At this point in his career, he feels as good as he did in his 20s, though his crouched skating style is particularly hard on his hips and requires more massage treatments and ice baths than it ever has. But when a guy hits his career high and establishes himself as one of the league’s top defensemen at 35, there’s no reason to believe his level of play is going to drop off precipitously anytime soon.
You just keeping stacking quality years on top of quality years and you get the respect you deserve.
– Bill Peters, Flames coach
Whatever his contributions are on the ice, Giordano will never stop being a positive force for change off it. He’s one of the most socially aware players in the NHL today, as evidenced by his Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian of the Year Award at the 2017 ESPYs. His middle-class upbringing programmed him to never take anything for granted, particularly a sister, who can be taken away in the blink of an eye. What started with his wife, Lauren, at Habitat for Humanity has grown into Team Giordano, which has raised more than $300,000 and focused its efforts on four Calgary schools, helping to build sports courts, renovate and equip gymnasiums and supply students with iPads to enhance their learning. One of the junior high schools used its funds to establish a quiet room where students could go and decompress. Giordano has also taken an active role in helping Syrian refugee families in the Calgary area. Stroking a check is really good, but there are few who get as intimately involved in the action the way Giordano does. “At the end of the day, that’s more important than hockey, right?” Giordano said. “That’s real life.”
Giordano credits his wife as the driving force between Team Giordano and with making him realize he can use his position as a pro athlete to help make people’s lives easier. “He has worked very hard, but we both grew up modestly,” Lauren said. “And to have this lifestyle kind of fall into our laps, we just realized how lucky we are. Sometimes I think it’s out of guilt. I mean, what did we do to deserve this when people go through so much? We have two kids now, and I’m able to be around to raise them. I’m not working three jobs. I can’t imagine how some of these parents do it. Life can be really tough. It never feels like enough.”
Yes, life can be tough. Giordano knows that firsthand. He has already lived 14 years longer his sister, who would be in her early-40s now if she were alive. Before every game, as the final notes of the national anthem are being sung, Giordano taps his helmet twice with his stick and turns his thoughts toward Mia. Then he goes out and plays the game, almost always very well. Well enough this season that he might be recognized as the best defenseman in the best league in the world.