It happens all the time. A friend remarks, “I just love this new song. Have you heard it?” Annoyed, you think to yourself, “This is my song and it is not new. I found this artist.”
Your beloved song makes its way to mainstream radio markets. You knew all along how extraordinary it is. It’s a funny feeling that tears you up - half happy it is getting the recognition it deserves, and half upset that it took so long.
If music could be hockey and songs could be players – that song would be Mark Giordano.
Character players aren’t born character players. Life happens. Giordano’s career and success is the direct result of hard work. Well, a combination of hard work and tragedy.
I think that the Flames have given me every opportunity to succeed over my career. - Mark Giordano
Suited up, the Calgary Flames captain powers onto the ice, takes a few laps and stands along the blue line to face the flag. The abundant sway in his legs keeps the blood flowing before the puck drops. So many habitual actions that, at 31, are now hard wired muscle memory. In the midst of every Canadian anthem, Giordano raises his stick to his forehead and connects the two as a pre-game ritual to reset his intent. It could be likened to players who sniff on smelling salts before the game. Both acts restore mental alertness and arouse consciousness.
Except, Gio isn’t relying on a chemical compound. He reflects back to heartbreak. To loss. He thinks of his big sister Mia, who died in a car crash in 1998. Mia was 20 at the time. Mark was only 14 – such a formative time for a young man to navigate. This was a time that shook Mark’s parents Paul and Anna to their core and yet, brought the family closer.
“I try to make a point of remembering her during the anthem, every game. It was a tough thing to go through at that time in my life. I try to use it as a reminder to enjoy the game as much as I can and never take it for granted,” he says.
During those three-minutes of song, it is stick to forehead. It is his pause for Mia. Perspective is found in this moment as he remembers that hockey is just a game to enjoy and something to be grateful to be a part of.
In her loss, he’s gained character.
Panel after panel of analysts – as well as coaches – toss the term “character player” around oh so liberally. Almost as easily as players simply add a “Y” to the end of their teammates’ last name and, boom, a nickname is born.
“Character player,” it’s the new black. And, why not? Given enough of them, teams win championships. The confluence of character, within players, flows right alongside their path to the National Hockey League.
THE JOURNEY TO THE TOP
Giordano found his way to the NHL via detours and back roads. He was never been drafted. Ever. Passed over in junior, and again by the NHL. In fact, of 30 NHL teams, Giordano is currently the only undrafted captain who is characterized as “undrafted”. Make no mistake – it is a character trait.
At one point, Giordano – who is now arguably the best defenceman in the NHL, and led all defencemen in scoring in 2014 – was on his way to York University.
“My courses were all selected. I was ready to go to school,” he recalls.
Before classes began, Giordano traded writing his name on the inside cover of textbooks for a chance at signing autographs. An unexpected phone call came from the Calgary Flames. He was presented with a contract. It was a three-way deal, but a foot in the door. The salary was unpredictable as he could land in the NHL, AHL or ECHL. There was no signing bonus. Both employee and employer were rolling the dice. What’s that saying, again? Opportunity comes disguised as work?
And so, he became a pro! Well, sort of. Beginning in 2004, Gio slugged out three-seasons as a journeyman. Simply put, he never fully unpacked his suitcase. Time was devoted to the minors with less than a handful of call-ups, where he was a healthy scratch or received little ice time.
The man just wanted to play hockey.
At 24, Gio elected to spend the 2007-08 season in Russia playing for Moscow Dynamo. He passed on re-signing a two-way contract with the Flames, and left the NHL for the KHL. At this juncture, any outsider would confer he had sentenced himself to the opposite direction of NHL dreams with this atypical risk. In his mind, the risk was worth the reward.
“I was a bubble player at time, and thought that this move could help me both on the ice and financially. I really believe I became a better player because I played a bigger role and more minutes that year,” he says.
It is all or nothing with Gio. He fully committed overseas.
“At the time I was prepared to stay there if I had to.”
But play he did. A lot. So much so that he returned to Calgary and signed with the Flames the following season. He had a newfound confidence, the Flames opened up another door – and this time, Gio was ready to sprint through it. He credits the support the team has consistently offered him.
“I've always believed in myself, but careers can be unpredictable in regards to injuries and opportunity. I think that the Flames have given me every opportunity to succeed over my career.”
Darryl Sutter, Flames’ former general manager, allowed Giordano to return in 2008 for a reason.
“Once he started playing regularly for the Flames, he was always a top-four guy,” Sutter offered up the last time he came through Calgary coaching the LA Kings.
“He is getting recognition now because of the numbers, but Gio is the full package. He is a dominant player on their team. He’s their best player by a long shot.”
SKILLED AND SOUND
Defensively, Gio is sound and always has been. It’s the points that are flooding in that are making the rest of the league take notice. As if they were waiting on his stick all along. The man is like Heinz ketchup exiting out of the bottle, slow and steady, then drastically all at once.
Defencemen typically mature later in their careers, as there is a lot of pressure in being the last man back. Mistakes are often more noticable and there is also plenty of development required to learn to read opponents and how to position-up correctly.
Giordano’s maturation hasn’t stopped, nor slowed, as he is currently playing the best hockey of his life. He led all defencemen in the NHL in scoring for 2014, notching 19 goals and 65 points. In the midst of this 2014-2015 season, a man, who wasn’t even sure if the NHL was a feasible route, represented his team at the 2015 NHL All-Star Game. He is also a dominant candidate for the Norris Trophy, awarded each season to the top defenceman in the National Hockey League.
“I think it’s early,” he cautioned. Then, with such precision, he will find a way to credit his D-partner TJ Brodie or the rest of his teammates for his success.
Yes, his teammates have played a role, but as aforementioned, on D, you are sometimes the last man back and have got to step up. The beginning of the 2014-15 season saw Gio record 20 points in 18 games, becoming the fastest Flames' defenceman to reach the milestone since Al MacInnis in the 1993-1994 season.
This season he was also named the NHL’s First Star of the Month for November. Now, this becomes significantly more gobsmacking when followed up by the fact he is the first defenceman to ever (yes, ever) be awarded this monthly acclaim.
Giordano has been overlooked and passed up before and, like an arrow, when pulled back, he propels forward. The Norris trophy, though? The captain’s a front-runner to win. If won, he will receive the trophy as a 31-year-old who has grinded hard and prevailed in a league where an average player lasts only five-and-a-half years, and only half of the players will suit up to play 100 games.
And if he doesn't win? Well, he will continue to captain the Flames and he won’t miss a beat. He’s been passed up before.
“There are so many important things for a hockey player to possess," Giordano professed. "I try to key in on hard work and hockey IQ the most. Mental toughness is probably what is the biggest difference between players in the NHL.
“Everyone is very talented in this league. Not everyone has the same mental toughness.”
It’s safe to say his song is steady like a drum.