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HEART AND SOUL

Mark Giordano's childhood mentor Brian MacDougall gets emotional when discussing his former student's rise to Norris finalist

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames / CalgaryFlames.com

There'll be an appropriate amount of tension in the longtime homestead on Fife Road, town of Grand Valley, Ont., north of Toronto, the night the NHL Awards are televised from the opulent Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Glitter Gulch.

"I'm already nervous,'' confides Brian MacDougall.

"When he won the (ESPN) Muhammad Ali (Humanitarian) Award, I'll be honest, I got emotional. Really emotional. I couldn't hold it back.

"I get emotional today just talking about it. Can't you tell?

"Now, for him to win the Norris Trophy? Well, that's beyond a dream.

"I want it so bad for him because he deserves it."

Since they met back in the mid-'90s, MacDougall - a "hockey guy" as he describes himself - has watched Mark Giordano develop and grow, from a determined kid to an unknown free-agent signing to an everyday NHLer to captain of the Calgary Flames and a franchise icon.

"As great a player as he is, just the man he's become is what knocks me out,'' says MacDougall, with bordering-on-parental pride, of the boy he coached for four winters. "He's humble.

"He's polite.

"He appreciates everything.

"He doesn't take anything for granted.

"He's a young man but an old soul.

"That's so nice to see. Especially in this day and age, right?"

The MacDougall clan, Brian, wife Ann and the three kids, consider Giordano a part of their family, having known the Flames' captain since he was 13 years old.

He played hockey with Kyle MacDougall, became a fixture in the family basement on weekends during the summer months, even joining them on vacation from time to time. Brian coached Giordano in the Greater Toronto Hockey League and trained him during summers at the McDougall Hockey Camp in Orangeville, Ont.

"He became,'' says MacDougall nearly a quarter-century later, "one of our kids."

It'd be a stretch to credit him with 'discovering' Giordano but this was indisputably one of the first people to recognize latent potential in the unpolished teenager, to nurture his abilities and believe that the faraway dreams might, someday, actually come true.

"When I met Mark, he was a centreman,'' recalls MacDougall. "Almost immediately, I wanted to shift him back to defence. He was just so smart, I knew he could control the game from back there.

"At first, he fought me on it.

"At the time, he was undersized, very tiny. One of the smallest players in the league, so he had to play centre. 

"But he had the hands, his IQ was off the charts, and his athleticism and compete level were always there.

"Always."

MacDougall recalls one of the young Giordano's first turns on the blueline, against a touring team from Richmond Va., and his initially being overwhelmed by the speed, size and strength of the older opposition.

"He made his way down the bench to me after his first couple of shifts,'' recalled the coach, "and said: 'Bri, I can't play D. It's too fast.' I glanced at him for a few seconds and then told him to go back to his place on the bench. He went back, played his next shift and we never talked again about him playing defence.

"We lost that game 8-3.

"We played them again three weeks later and beat them 6-1 and Mark was probably the best player on the ice."

The bonds tightened. For two summers, MacDougall helped land Giordano a job at his workplace - in a warehouse and then in data entry - so he could have some extra cash to buy hockey gear.

"Brian's such a salt-of-the-earth type of guy who cares for the game, but more importantly about the kids who play it,'' praises Giordano.

"He's been like that from the moment I met him.

"There were a group of us who, if we needed rides to the rink, equipment, sticks, he was always the guy to help us out. Everyone in that family, Ann, Kyle, Mandi and Justin, were always there. Not just for me, but a bunch of us.

"They couldn't go a weekend without having four or five extra guys around their house, eating their food, drinking their pop, hanging out.

"I can't say enough good things about him. On the ice, for me he was such a great teacher, a great mentor. Off the ice, he was even more important. He took me under his wing.

"During my teenage years, we spent a lot of time together. The family, they couldn't get rid of me. I tagged along with the family on a trip to Florida for, I think, three weeks one time.

"Wonderful, wonderful people."

Life changes, of course. Times passes. The two men don't see each other as they'd like to these days. Still, when the Flames are playing in Toronto or Buffalo, MacDougall, Ann, the kids and grandkids make sure they're on hand to support their adopted son/brother/uncle.

"Brian and Ann, they do things out of the goodness of their hearts,'' says Giordano. "They don't want anything or ask anything in return, from anyone.

"They're just down-to-earth great people who honestly had a huge impact on my career and in my life."

MacDougall, you can tell, feels more than amply compensated, every time he picks up a paper and reads about Giordano's noted penchant for giving back, or turns on the TV to catch a Flames' game or visits Calgary and experiences first-hand inside the 'Dome the respect and affection fans in this city hold for their captain.

 

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"I don't think there's a defenceman in the NHL that plays against tougher competition than Mark does,'' he argues. "Night in, night out.

"I watch a lot of hockey and there's not too many guys in his category. He plays the whole rink. I'm very proud of him for that. I'm big on that. I still run hockey camps and Mark's a big backer of what I do.

"To this day, I teach my kids what I taught Mark - give it everything you have every time your blades touch the time. This guy, he never takes a shift off.

"When he signed on to try out with Calgary with Darryl Sutter, everyone I knew, I told them: 'Whatever level Mark plays at, he will dominate.' Did I think he'd get to the level he is today? No. I can't say that. But I did believe he'd make it because he wanted to so badly.

"His courage, what it takes to battle through all the obstacles - undrafted, undersized, going to Russia for the year - is amazing. When he got to Calgary, the defence was stacked. But he had that inner belief in himself.

"He's had that forever."

On June 19, a city of over a million people will be holding its collective breath as an envelope is ripped open and the name of the best NHL defenceman of 2019 unveiled from the stage at Mandalay Bay.

There will also, it bears repeating, be an appropriate amount of tension in the longtime MacDougall family homestead on Fife Road, town of Grand Valley, Ont., north of Toronto.

They are, after all, a legendary lot, the men whose names have been inscribed on the James Norris Memorial Trophy since its inception back in 1953. Kelly and Harvey, Potvin and Robinson, Bourque and Coffey and Leetch and MacInnis and Lidstrom among them.

On June 19th, Mark Giordano can - and should, given the sweeping shimmer of his regular season - add his name to that celestial list.

"I mean, Bobby Orr ...,'' laughs Brian MacDougall, in something approaching awe. "To be mentioned in the same sentence as Bobby Orr … well, that's enough for me.

"Bobby Orr has always been my favourite all-time defenceman."

Pause for clarification.

"Until Mark, of course."

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