ARLINGTON, Va. – Dan Girardi was an undrafted and over-aged junior defenseman playing for his third team in the Ontario Hockey League when he first got to know Dale Hunter.
At the time it may have been hard to imagine Girardi someday becoming an all-star defenseman in the NHL, but being traded to Hunter’s London Knights during the 2004-05 season proved to be a tremendous stepping stone in his development.
Five months after joining one of the best junior teams in Canadian Hockey League history, the 21-year-old found himself matched against a 17-year-old phenom and the projected No. 1 pick in the forthcoming NHL Draft, in a best-of-one national championship.
“We won the Memorial Cup with him and Marc Methot shutting down Sidney Crosby,” Hunter recalled Friday as his Washington Capitals prepared to face Girardi and the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
“I think that really jumpstarted my career,” Girardi said earlier this season of his experience in London. “Teams want guys that know how to win and can win those big championships even in a junior league. I think [Hunter] trading for me from Guelph was a big point in my career… Obviously it helped open some doors with the Rangers and now I’m here.”
Nearly seven years later, Girardi played in his first career NHL All-Star Game, and finished fourth in the NHL in average ice-time (26:14 per game) and fifth in blocked shots (185).
Girardi has become one of the premier shutdown defensemen in the League and will likely be entrusted with containing Alex Ovechkin and Washington’s No.1 line when their series begins Saturday in New York (3:00, ET, NBC).
“We knew when we got him [in a trade from the Guelph Storm] that he was a great defensive player,” Hunter said. “He was never drafted and he played as an over-aged [player] so it’s a credit to a young man that’s a battler, which every coach likes.”
In addition to Girardi, his New York teammates Brandon Prust (2002-05) and Michael Del Zotto (2009) also played for Hunter in London.
“A heart and soul kind of guy,” Hunter said of Prust. “He’s a battler too, another guy that was a walk-on to our team. He’s one of these kids that will battle and play hard. You see him blocking shots and he’s a special player.”
Prust played three seasons for Hunter, collecting 41 goals, 111 points and 537 penalty minutes in 177 OHL games.
“He said to me one time when I was going to sit him out when he first came to me -- we were in Windsor -- and he said: “Play me coach and you’ll never take me out.” I played him and I never took him out.
“It’s good to see from him that’s doing so well. Hopefully not against us, but through his career so far.”
Del Zotto spent less time in London than either Girardi or Prust, having been dealt to the Knights in a 2009 deadline deal along with John Tavares.
But in 42 regular and post-season games with the Knights, Del Zotto recorded nine goals and 49 points and teamed up with Capitals defenseman John Carlson to form London’s No. 1 defensive pairing.
“It was awesome,” Del Zotto said earlier this season of his experience playing for Hunter. “They treat their players like pros and Dale has been through the ranks, he’s played and so he understands how to treat the players. He was great for me.”
Added Hunter: “[Del Zotto] was the same type of D [in junior]. He jumps up in every play, he’s involved, he’s a power-play guy and he hits. He’s an aggressive guy. You know his offense, but you’ll see when he gets big hits out there that we’ll have to be ready for it. He’s had a good career so far.”
It’s clear that Girardi, Prust and Del Zotto have all enjoyed NHL success playing the same types of games that got them noticed in London. Similarly, according to former players like Del Zotto, it doesn’t like Hunter has changed much either.
“If you’re not playing well and you’re one of the big guys,” Del Zotto said, “He’s not afraid to come after you and I think that’s pretty important. You can’t just let guys roam around and do whatever they want. They have to buy into the structure and buy into the team and he’s not afraid to put his foot down.”