In many respects, the past year-and-a-half has been a blur in Claude Giroux
"Honestly, everything's happened so fast," explained the 19-year-old star of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League's Gatineau Olympiques. "I keep thinking, at some point, that I'll get the chance to sit back, maybe, and take it all in.
"But," he continued, "I don't think that's going to happen anytime soon."
Giroux arrived in Gatineau a relative unknown at the beginning of last season, but it didn't take long for him to make his mark. In fact, he turned in such a successful rookie season with the Olympiques that he went from virtual obscurity to a highly-scouted prospect in short order.
Still, it came as some surprise, especially to Giroux himself, when his name was called by the Flyers just 22 picks into the 2006 NHL Entry Draft in Vancouver in June. Aside from being tabbed earlier than many scouts had predicted, the selection of the diminutive speedster represented something of a departure from the norm for the Orange and Black."Traditionally, we have targeted bigger, more physical players," explained general manager Paul Holmgren, the assistant general manager of the club at the time of the draft. "But Claude was a player high on our list. We view him as an excellent blend of skill and smarts, and a player with a very competitive attitude and a definite desire to win."Basically, he's the perfect player model for the new NHL."Giroux has gone on to justify the organization's faith in his abilities by exploding into the realm of the QMJHL elite this season. He has cooled a bit after a blazing start, but remains one of the top offensive players in the circuit. "It's been a heck of a ride so far," explained Giroux, already one of the acknowledged cornerstones of the Flyers' future. "I'm looking forward to whatever else this season brings here in Gatineau, and, hopefully, to getting the chance to play down there in Philadelphia in the not too distant future."Learning to FlyGiroux was born on January 12, 1988 in Hearst, Ontario. The town, with a population of less than 6,000, is unique in that it is the furthest community in terms of northern latitude accessible by car in the province. All towns north of Hearst can only be reached via plane or helicopter.Hearst is also well-noted for being one of Ontario's primarily French-speaking (francophone) villages, a comparative rarity in the English-dominated province. Many of the town's residents, including the Giroux family, draw their roots from nearby Quebec. "It was a nice place to grow up," the fluently bilingual Giroux explained of his hometown. "Very warm and friendly, and always a good sense of community and family there. It's a small town, but there was plenty to do, and, of course, hockey is a way of life up there. "Shortly after I was born, I think, my dad put a stick in my hand and skates on my feet. I'm not sure exactly how old I was when I started playing [in an organized league], but I was probably four or five. I played my minor hockey in Hearst, up through peewee, and have great memories of those years."Not surprisingly, given the cultural and geographical logistics of his upbringing, Giroux was a fan of the Montreal Canadiens while growing up. Unfortunately, though, he was only five when the Habs captured the Stanley Cup in 1993, and didn't get to experience the full impact of the occasion."For sure, I wish I was a bit older when that happened," he said. "Obviously, the Canadiens are the most popular team where I'm from. It's a tradition in our family as well. I always followed the team very closely and had a number of players I really admired."But who, specifically, was his favorite?"Actually, even though he didn't play for Montreal, I would have to say Pavel Bure. He was just such an exciting player. I loved the way he used his speed and quickness. He would always do something different with the puck, something you maybe never saw before – a fancy deke, a quick pass to an open teammate. "He was just awesome on breakaways. I used to love to watch him play, a little in Vancouver, then with Florida and the Rangers. The way he could just fly around the rink was really impressive, and something I always wanted to emulate."In 2002, Giroux and his family moved to Orleans, Ontario (near Ottawa), and he went on to suit up for the Cumberland Barons at the bantam and midget AA levels. He jumped to the "Junior A" level in 2004-05 with the Cumberland Grads, for whom he became an impact player immediately. Man on a MissionDespite his success prior to moving up to the major junior level, however, Giroux was not drafted by a Canadian Hockey League team. He subsequently resolved to prove his worth by attempting to make the Gatineau Olympiques' roster as a training camp walk-on in the summer of 2005."I was impressed with Claude from the first workout," explained Olympiques head coach and general manager Benoit Groulx, in an interview after the draft last June. "His skills were apparent, but even more so, he showed a lot of passion and determination every time he stepped on the ice."It was an easy decision to offer him a contract and sign him as a free agent after his strong training camp performance. And, obviously, we benefited greatly from that decision."According to Giroux, confidence was the key factor in helping him land a spot on the team, which was then and remains a perennial Memorial Cup contender."It was something I knew I could do and, basically, I just set out to do it," he explained. "My goal was just to practice and play hard, do my best and, hopefully, be rewarded with a chance to play. The camp and preseason went well, I fit in and everything worked out. I was really happy with the setup in Gatineau and was proud to join a top-notch organization."Clearly, however, Giroux had no intention of resting on his laurels after making the team. The best was certainly yet to come, as the then-18-year-old wasted no time in establishing himself as an offensive force to be reckoned with in the "Q."He began to stockpile points early and often, contributing with quality play at both ends of the rink and, eventually, earning the right to play big minutes in all game situations. Giroux wound up finishing not only as the Olympiques' leading scorer, but as the league's top offensive rookie, with an astounding 103 points (39 goals, 64 assists) in only 69 games. Not bad for a walk-on, eh? "I think I made a pretty smooth transition to the major junior level," said Giroux, who also recorded 63 PIMs on the season. "There were some adjustments I had to make, some little things. I think I picked up on the speed and pace of play here quickly. Those were the main things, then everything just seemed to fall into place."I definitely feel that my play improved as the season went on. I think my second half was much better than my first half, overall. I was a much more complete player by the end of the year, thanks in large part to coach Groulx, who really taught me the value of playing hard at both ends of the rink."Added Groulx: "Claude worked hard to improve his game and continued to get better. As I said, he showed a lot of dedication in all areas from the start, and all of that work certainly paid off for him and for us as a team."In terms of personal highlights during his rookie campaign, Giroux counts being selected to play in the 2006 CHL Top Prospects Game in Ottawa as a milestone in his career, and an event he'll never forget in general."That was quite an experience," he related. "I think, playing in that game, in that environment, with all of those NHL scouts there watching your every more; I think that was around the time where it all kind of hit me and I truly realized that I had a real shot [at playing in the NHL]."You look around and see all of that great talent, and it makes you wonder for just a minute what you're doing there. But, it was an honor to play in the game, and it was a lot of fun. I'm glad it was something I got to experience, and I'm sure it played a big role in helping me get recognized a little bit more."Recognition and RewardThe 2005-06 season ended on a disappointing note for the Olympiques (40-23-4-3), who were eliminated in the semifinals of the QMJHL playoffs by the eventual league champion Moncton Wildcats, four-games-to-one. Still, there was no denying that the season had been an unmitigated success for Giroux, who seemingly came out of nowhere to become one of the top stories of the year at the Canadian major junior level. "We were down about the way the season ended, for sure," he explained. "Gatineau has a proud history, and the team had been to the Memorial Cup Finals twice just a few years back. So, we didn't accomplish our ultimate goal, and that was a disappointment, but we also knew that this was a younger team and that we'd be back."For me, personally, it was a very good year. I was actually sort of surprised at how well I did overall, how well the season turned out. I just wanted to win so bad [in the playoffs], and I'm looking forward to getting back there." As last season progressed and Giroux continued to show marked improvement and potential as an NHL prospect, word quickly spread. Soon, scouts were showing up in larger numbers to Robert Guertin Arena in Gatineau. "The added attention didn't bother me at all," said Giroux. "It was kind of neat, but never a distraction or anything. I'm not a player who needs attention, but I certainly don't mind it a little bit either."It turned out to be a good thing, of course, because whether he was ready or not, he found himself in the spotlight on draft day.Giroux was ranked 38th on the NHL Central Scouting Bureau's final draft-eligible rankings, moving all the way from 72nd in the mid-season report. Interestingly, the TSN network in Canada, which broadcasted the draft, predicted him to go 22nd overall, exactly where the Flyers picked him."My family traveled with me to Vancouver for the draft, and we expected it to be a big day," he remembered. "But, I never thought I would be picked that early. Number 22 overall was a huge surprise to me, and I was just so happy to be selected by the Flyers."Holmgren noted afterward that the Flyers had discussions about potentially moving the pick earlier, but chose to use it when their turn came up and Giroux was still on the board. "Claude was in the group of players that we had targeted that would hopefully be available when our pick came up," he said. "He is a skilled, intelligent and competitive player, and we're tremendously happy to have him in the organization."It never made sense [to make a trade]," Holmgren continued. "We had a couple of opportunities to move back but Claude was high enough and wanted enough by our organization that we decided not to do that."Taking the Next StepHaving attained his goal of being drafted, Giroux set out to take his game to the next level in 2006-07. He showed up at his first Flyers rookie mini-camp in September with 10 pounds of added muscle, the byproduct of a rigorous offseason training program.Giroux was one of the standouts at the camp, then was returned to the QMJHL before the commencement of the Flyers' main training camp in Voorhees. Baring something unexpected, he will make his preseason debut with the Flyers this fall."My first experience in Philadelphia was a very positive one, I would have to say." he explained. "Just to get in there and be part of the Flyers organization was a great way to start this new phase of my career."The veteran players I interacted with while I was there were all such a big help to me. It was amazing to see Peter Forsberg, as well as Simon Gagne, another [former QMJHL player] I've always looked up to. I came back to Gatineau with a lot more confidence than ever before, and couldn't wait to get started again."And it showed.Giroux picked up right where he left off last season with the Olympiques, resuming his role as a dominant offensive force. He led the QMJHL in scoring during the first few months of the season, needing only 22 games to hit the 50 point plateau.Now listed at 5-11, 172-lbs., Giroux currently leads his team and ranks third in the league in scoring with 89 points (39 goals, 50 assists) in 48 games. He also boasts a +15 rating and 32 penalty minutes, and leads the circuit with an impressive 26.2 shooting percentage.The only even-remotely negative footnote on Giroux's season saw the young forward miss the cut for Team Canada's entry at the World Junior Championships. Even so, Giroux had a solid showing at the program's trial camp in December, and was among the final cuts in an outstanding field."It was very disappointing, obviously, to miss out on making the World Junior team, but, depending on the way things work out, I could get a chance again next year," he said. "The team that was selected is so talented from top to bottom, and did a great job in bringing home the gold [for Canada]."I was proud of their effort, and hope to get the chance to enjoy that experience next time around."Added Holmgren: "[Giroux] has had a tremendous year this year in the Quebec League. The last time I looked, he was fourth or fifth in the scoring and averaging a few points per game in his time in Gatineau in the QMJHL. "He was invited to the world junior team trial camp just around Christmas time, and was actually one of the last players cut from that team, the team that ended up winning the gold medal, so that was a good experience for him."Gatineau (28-18-2-2) presently sits in fifth place in the QMJHL's highly competitive West Division, but is only eight points behind the first place Val-D'or Foreurs (32-16-2-2). The Olympiques rank third in the league in total offense with 227 goals, thanks in large part to the contributions of Giroux."The team is having a very good year, and we should be in a position to challenge for the [QMJHL and Memorial Cup championship] once we get to the postseason," said Giroux. "That's our main focus and, all statistics and things aside, all that really matters."What Lies AheadWhile Giroux's focus and immediate future rest on Gatineau's fortunes, it is only natural to look ahead and try to envision what the future holds for the talented young forward. Giroux will attend his first full Flyers training camp this September, and will surely attract plenty of attention. But will he have a legitimate shot at making the team as a 19-year-old?"There will be a lot of factors involved," explained Holmgren. "To put a player on your roster, you need to maintain and expect him to make an impact; it's a little bit of a stretch. I think this is a big summer for Claude to see how much stronger he can get. "It's certainly a question for him to come to camp and open our eyes, play some preseason games, and then we'll have to make a decision as to what is in the best interest of the hockey team and what is in the best interest of Claude and his development at that time."We look forward to having him in camp next year and then, who knows? He would have to make the Flyers to turn pro. We wouldn't be able to send him to the Phantoms. He would either make the Flyers or go back to the juniors. He is one of those guys that we would certainly watch in training camp because of his hockey sense and his skill package."Giroux admitted that he tries not to think too much about future, especially during the midst of an ongoing season. But, it's only human nature to look forward."For sure, it's definitely one of my goals to earn a pro contract with the Flyers, and I'd love for it to happen in the near future," he said. "I don't know what will happen [this offseason], but I am confident that I will join the Flyers when the time is right."I'm looking forward to training camp next year, and seeing how it goes. If I am assigned back to Gatineau for another season, I will welcome that decision and maybe even look at it as another chance to play in the World Juniors."In the meantime, I just have to focu
s on winning now, and continuing to improve my game any way I can. The biggest thing for me is to continue to get stronger and work on my play away from the puck."
Holmgren concurred: "His weakness right now is his... weakness. He is not a real strong player; he just hasn't filled out yet. He's still [growing] and he has not fully matured yet physically. That's probably his only weakness.
"His strengths are his hockey sense, his vision on the ice, his ability to read plays both with the puck and without it and his skill package is also one of his major strengths.
"Claude is a highly skilled and highly intelligent player. He is not as big now, he is going to be a couple years down the road, but he is a competitive guy. Once he fills out a little more, we think he is going to be a really good player for the Flyers. He just has tremendous hockey sense and tremendous skill and once he gets a little stronger, he's going to become a faster skater and his game will get to another level because of that."