When Mark Giordano was named captain of the Calgary Flames back in 2013, some wondered why.
Why an undrafted free agent who had cracked the 30-point plateau twice in parts of six sporadic NHL seasons?
What did the organization see in the soon-to-be 29-year-old? He had 41 goals and 150 points in 385 NHL games and spent the entire 2007-08 campaign in Russia in a contract standoff with the Calgary Flames franchise.
It was all about the journey.
Most readers know how it turned out. As the Calgary Flames captain, Giordano scored 102 goals and 359 points in his remaining 564 games with the team. He won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman in 2018-19 after a career-high 74 points in 78 games and finally established himself as an elite player.
But it was how he got there that made him worthy of wearing the captain’s letter on his chest in Calgary, and now as the inaugural captain of the Seattle Kraken, who the Flames play on Thursday for the first time in the regular season. Most quotes in this story are from a notebook dated September 2013, but they still all ring true of Giordano as a player and as a person.
“He was kind of a heavy kid who didn’t really know how to train,” former Flames coach Jim Playfair recalled back then, reminiscing about Giordano’s first NHL training camp in Calgary.
It was an eye-opening experience for the undrafted free-agent signing who was never drafted into the Ontario Hockey League or the NHL but turned two solid junior seasons with the Owen Sound Attack into an opportunity at the next level.
“My first camp was the biggest eye-opener of my career,” Giordano said in 2013 in the halls of the Alberta Children’s Hospital where he was visiting sick kids in his spare time. “You come and you think you’re in shape. I was out of shape. My cardio was way off. I was probably a bit too heavy – I think I was weighing in at over 210, which I can’t even believe now.”
From fat camp to fittest Flame
It was a far cry from what most know about him now as a consistent winner in the pre-season fitness testing.
“You learn real quick,” he said with a laugh. “I felt like after that year, I developed pretty quickly off the ice, which helped me on the ice.”
Before the Flames signed him in 2004, he flashed some offensive ability in addition to a toughness with the Attack. His first pro season with the Lowell Lock Monsters was promising, too, combining 85 penalty minutes with six goals and 16 points in 66 games in the American Hockey League, which was full of NHLers during the league’s labour lockout in 2004-05.
Back then, he hardly imagined carving out a career in the NHL, never mind a captaincy.
Nobody around him was surprised. Following his path from that first camp in Calgary is a spectacular story of determination.
Giordano’s second pro season included seven games in the NHL and an all-star appearance for the AHL’s Omaha Knights. He led that team in scoring with 16 goals and 58 points. He was with the Flames for nearly all of 2006-07, a bit of a diamond in the rough. But he found himself scratched often and by the end of the year, Giordano wasn’t sure he would ever establish himself as an NHL regular. The early ups and downs led to a contract dispute and he signed in Russia for the 2007-08 season, knowing it could mean the end of his NHL aspirations.
Seeking a one-way NHL contract when his entry-level deal expired, Giordano wasn’t getting what he wanted from then-GM Darryl Sutter. The idea of bouncing back and forth to the minors or spending half his nights in the rafters or riding a bike outside the locker-room wasn’t what Giordano believed would help him take the next step.
And when the Flames signed veteran blueliner Anders Eriksson in the summer of 2007, Giordano and his agent settled on a deal with the Moscow Dynamo.
Giordano gambled on himself signing deal in Russia
“At that time, I didn’t feel like the contract they offered me was very good – which was fine,” Giordano said. “I just felt like for my career, and for my life, I was going to go explore other things because I didn’t know if I was a full-time NHL player. I was still probably a number-seven guy if I would have stayed.”
The move worked out well. Giordano was a top pairing player in the Russian Super League. The increased ice time and responsibility improved his skating and strength. He became a better player in Russia. Ultimately, he landed a three-year, one-way deal with the Flames.
“I was so happy. I didn’t know if I would ever get back in the league again,” he said, lighting up.
His career started to skyrocket. Although a shoulder injury that required surgery ended his breakout year prematurely in 2008-09, he was garnering attention across the league.
Legendary NHL coach turned exec Scotty Bowman considered Giordano among the most improved and underrated players in the league in 2010. The increasingly confident rearguard was becoming the kind of player everyone in the locker-room was keen to follow. Following him as the next Calgary Flames captain won’t be easy and the franchise is taking its time deciding.
“You can’t say enough about him. He works hard every day. He’s just the poster boy for a captain,” alternate captain Curtis Glencross said at the time. “The first guy in the weight room. He’s a great leader in the room, leads by example. And he’s not afraid to stick up for a teammate. He’s everything a captain is.”
Leadership role came naturally to Flames mentor
Michael Cammalleri, another alternate with the Flames in 2013-14, remembered some early battles with a rookie Giordano in the AHL. He got a scouting report of “sneaky good” from a mutual friend from the Toronto area, Mike Zigomanis.
“I was nothing but impressed. Not only by the stuff he’s known for, but also his skill level. His ability to make plays,” Cammalleri said, admitting he gained even more respect for Giordano as a teammate.
“If you look at his progression into a leader, it all starts with the way he’s earned trust and respect from the way he plays on the ice. He’s got a lot of things you look for in a hockey player. The leadership role, for him, I think was just a natural progression. For a guy like him, it was just him being himself. He doesn’t have to come out of his shoes at all to be a leader.”
He’s also been a massive mentor. Now a veteran defender himself with the Toronto Maple Leafs, TJ Brodie spent his younger years looking up to Giordano.
“Coming in, I didn’t really know what all the guys are like. I saw Giordano jump in the play a bit, and I thought he was more of an offensive guy. Then I started seeing him hit guys and block shots and I said, ‘This guy does it all.’”
“He was a leader for a lot of the guys who are in the core now, for a lot of years,” current Flames d-man Noah Hanfin said via Zoom on Wednesday. “Me, being a defenceman and coming in a few years ago, I learned so much from him. (Most) importantly, the way he carries himself on and off the ice.
“He’s an extremely hard-working guy and got better every single year he played. He put the work in over a lot of years. He’s 38 now and still a big part of the team he’s on.”