Imagine travelling back in time just a couple of years to Las Vegas in June 2019. You pop into the Mandalay Bay Events Center and saunter up to Mark Giordano, who poses proudly with his first Norris Trophy after becoming the only player this century besides Nicklas Lidstrom to win it at 35 or older.
“I’m from 2021, and I wanted to warn you things will be…different.”
“Instead of captaining the Calgary Flames, you’ll be standing on an outdoor stage, wearing a new NHL jersey with a giant squid on it, after playing two seasons in empty arenas because of a pandemic that killed millions around the world.”
Really puts into perspective how much has changed in two short years, eh? Especially for someone like Giordano, who spent 15 NHL seasons with one team, including eight wearing the ‘C,’ and was ingratiated into the community along with his wife, Lauren, as standard setters for their charity work.
Is it any wonder, then, that Giordano was so visibly and admittedly dazed on July 21, 2021, when the Seattle Kraken introduced him as one of their selections in the expansion draft? He was a symbol of continuity in Calgary, so the idea of him struggling to digest his new surroundings made sense. He only found out he’d be chosen about 24 hours in advance. He scrambled to find a rapid COVID-19 test, going from pharmacy to pharmacy in his home city of Toronto, so he could cross the U.S. border in time for the televised live event. Nothing prepared Giordano for the surreality of becoming a Kraken – not even knowing for much of last season that he had a good chance of becoming a Kraken.
Three moments predating 2020-21 sealed his fate: Aug. 30, 2018, Jan. 8, 2020 and Oct. 9, 2020, the dates when RFA Noah Hanifin, RFA Rasmus Andersson and UFA Chris Tanev signed long-term deals with the Flames. Hanifin and Andersson were the young pillars of Calgary’s future, while veteran addition Tanev is six years Giordano’s junior and was the Flames’ top blueliner in 2020-21.
Given the Flames were locked into protecting seven forwards, GM Brad Treliving could only protect three blueliners under the league’s expansion-draft rules. Giordano, 37 at the time and entering the final season of his contract in 2021-22, knew he was the odd man out. He still felt suspense, however, because he didn’t know if Calgary would rescue him by striking a deal with Kraken GM Ron Francis.
After 15 seasons in Calgary, Giordano arrives in Seattle as the Kraken’s oldest player and de facto team captain. As the expansion draft grew closer, Francis’ asking price to spare Giordano proved too prohibitive. The Flames’ grip on their captain weakened.
To their credit, they kept Giordano informed. “ ‘Tree’ was great,” Giordano said. “Right down to, especially the last three, four weeks before the draft, we would talk pretty much daily. He explained to me he was trying to work out some sort of deal to try and maybe keep me with the Flames, but at the end of the day, they couldn’t come to an agreement.
And then you look at the other side of it. You have a team in Seattle who really wants you. (The expansion draft was) a weird couple of days, I’m not going to lie, when it happened. But when I got my head around it, you realize there’s this brand-new team and new organization, a lot of new faces who really want you to be a part of it, and it’s pretty cool. I’m looking forward to doing something different for the first time in a long time.”
If you’re new to Giordano factoids, you may believe 2021-22 will mark his first “fish out of water” hockey adventure, but it won’t. Yes, it’s been a long time since he broke his routine, but he began his prohockey career as an underdog competing under unusual and constantly changing circumstances.
He enjoyed a respectable major-junior career as a puck-moving blueliner with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack but never attracted enough attention to make Canada’s world-junior squad or be selected in the NHL draft. His dream was fading away by 2004, when he returned to Toronto, enrolled in York University and planned to attend business school, but a Hail Mary opportunity changed everything.
The Flames invited him to their training camp, he impressed their brass enough to earn a look in the AHL, and he embarked on his pro career. Giordano broke into the NHL as a depth defenseman with the Flames by 2005-06, earning limited minutes and responsibility. He felt he needed to improve his game dramatically if he wanted to make a long-term living in the sport, so he took a chance. He left for Russia to play for Dynamo Moscow in 2007- 08, one season before the Russian Superleague officially transformed into the KHL.
“I was young, it was scary at first,” he said. “You’re going into a different country where you don’t speak the same language as everyone else, so it was nerve-wracking for sure to walk into that city and that dressing room. But once the hockey started, the one thing I realized was, the one place you feel the most comfortable is on the ice. So it felt great, I loved playing there, the team treated me well, and the organization treated me well.”
He learned more about Moscow, the people and the culture as that season progressed. Looking back on it today, he feels he grew as a person on and off the ice there. Playing on larger ice surfaces helped him hone his skating, and logging significant ice time instilled a workhorse mentality.
By the time Giordano returned to North America, he was 25 and a different player. He stuck in the NHL by 2008-09 and, in 2010-11, began a decade-long run as one of the NHL’s premier all-situations blueliners.
Interestingly, Giordano reached his peak as a No. 1 defenseman after he turned 30. In a six-season stretch from his age-30 season through his Norris year in 2018-19, he ranked fourth among defensemen in goals, seventh in points, 10th in blocked shots and 12th in average ice time. He credits his unusually late summit to changing the way he prepared his body.
“I learned how to train to be functionally strong instead of just being strong, just having power,” he said. “I learned to (work out) in positions that I’m going to use on the ice and have strength, basically, in those positions rather than just have your normal bench-press power, squat power or lifting power. I also got a little bit lighter as I got older. You always want to stay quick, especially with the way the game’s going. I’m probably a few pounds lighter than I was in my 20s.”
From reaching the NHL undrafted to playing in Russia to peaking in his 30s, then, Giordano’s career trajectory has been unconventional, and that will prepare him for being thrust into such an unconventional situation for 2021-22.
It’s comforting, of course, that every other member of the Kraken undergoes the same jarring transplantation, from fellow expansion-draft selectees like defenseman Vince Dunn as castoffs, but they were adapting to a new city simultaneously, searching for places to live, learning about schools for their kids and so on.
The same applies to the Kraken players, and Giordano, a father of two, feels the organization has been first-class, from helping families get acclimated to assisting players with their nutrition programs to setting them up in a new $80-million practice facility. The feeling goes both ways, of course. The Kraken see Giordano as a first-class player. That’s why they wanted him so badly.
“It’s everything he stands for, not only as a player but as a person,” Francis said. “You read stories about what he did in the community in Calgary, and not just him, but his wife and his family. Those are the kind of character individuals you want to start your franchise with and have in your dressing room. You only get one chance to establish your history and tradition and build it right, and getting a guy of his stature is certainly a big part of doing that.”
Because of that stature, Giordano’s presence is pretty much irreplaceable in Calgary’s room. His now-former teammates were still reeling from his departure by the time camps opened. “You could go to him for anything,” said Flames left winger Andrew Mangiapane. “Whether it’s your contract or you’re looking at buying a house or anything like that, he was always there ready to listen. He’s a great guy and was a great captain, so I wish nothing but the best for him. It sucks that he had to leave, but that’s the business, and guys are going to have to step up and take a bigger role on our team.”
Perhaps no Flame will feel the absence more than center Sean Monahan, who became extremely close friends with Giordano in their eight seasons as teammates.
“It’s still going to be a shock once I get into camp and he’s not there,” Monahan said. “I’ve sat in the same stall looking across from him for almost nine years now, and it…it’s different. I train with him every day in the summer, too. It’s going to be weird when he’s not around.” Giordano, turning 38 in early October, transfers his village-elder role to Seattle.
He’s one of just four Kraken who have even turned 30, and he’s almost seven years older than the second-oldest Kraken, right winger Jordan Eberle. Hockey Twitter stitched a virtual ‘C’ onto Giordano’s jersey the minute he got picked, and he ultimately got it a year before his contract expires next summer.
About that: what happens next summer? Giordano will turn 39 by the time 2022-23 begins. He could love Seattle and want to keep playing there, or he could miss Calgary and want to return, or he might feel the call of his hometown Leafs. If the Kraken aren’t contenders, they could trade Giordano at the 2022 deadline, although his contract includes a 12-team no-trade list. It’s too early to predict his fate.
What we can confidently predict: Giordano will play beyond this season. His game has slipped since 2018- 19, but he’s still solidly above average as a two-way defenseman. In 2020-21, at 5-on-5, he had the second-lowest expected goals against percentage among Flames D-men. Calgary outscored opponents 43-34 and outchanced foes 403-362 with Giordano on the ice at 5-on-5. His impact on possession remains positive, and he has no plans to retire anytime soon.
“Forty has been my golden number that I want to get to at least,” Giordano said. “So I think I’ve got a few more years left in me. I see a few guys around, Zdeno Chara, Joe Thornton, doing great things after 40, so we’ll see. I’m going to play as long as I feel like I’m physically fit and I’m helping the team on the ice.”
Right now, he’s fit as ever, settling into in a city on the ocean, far more comfortable than most players as a fish out of water given his quirky career trajectory. He is hockey’s Benjamin Button, a player whose career has unfolded almost backward, with his best moments coming in what should’ve been his twilight years. So don’t be surprised if we see something memorable from Giordano as a founding member of the Kraken.