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NHL Awards

Giordano's hard work for Flames pays off with Norris Trophy

Celebrates being named best defenseman in NHL with longtime skating coach

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

LAS VEGAS -- Undrafted, signed by the Calgary Flames for a taste of the NHL, off to Russia for a season and then back to Calgary, through injuries and self-doubt, Mark Giordano has traveled a very different path through his hockey career.

On Wednesday, the destination of the Flames captain was the stage at the 2019 NHL Awards presented by Bridgestone, the landslide winner of the Norris Trophy as the best defenseman in the NHL.

Giordano received 165 of 171 first-place votes for 1,690 points, far ahead of the 720 polled by the San Jose Sharks' Brent Burns, the 2017 Norris winner, and the 585 going to the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman, who won in 2018.

 

[RELATED: Giordano of Flames wins Norris Trophy | Complete NHL Awards coverage]

 

"It feels pretty surreal today, to be honest," Giordano said. "I put in a lot of hard work over the years. I had a lot of ups, a lot of downs in my career. I really started believing in myself when I came back from Russia (for the 2008-09 season). It feels pretty good to be mentioned with [Burns] and Victor and all the great players in the past who have won this."

Giordano, 35, had NHL career highs of 57 assists and 74 points in 78 games, ranking him second among NHL defensemen in 2018-19 scoring, and led the NHL with a plus-39 rating.

The native of Toronto is the fourth player age 35 or older to win the Norris since it joined the NHL trophy case in 1954, along with Nicklas Lidstrom (four wins), Doug Harvey (three) and Al MacInnis (one).

"I take a lot of pride working out off the ice, keeping myself in good shape," he said. "But still, it's not easy to play late into your 30s. We're all aware of that as players, trying to last as long as you can. To be recognized at my age with this award is a moment that's really special for me and my family.

"No matter what level you're at, you're always going to have some doubt. Those thoughts are always going to be there. I had a passion to play, and I love the game so much. I'm a big fan of the game. I'm willing to put in the work, and hopefully I can keep playing at this level. Last year, I felt really good physically, so hopefully I can keep going."

Video: Mark Giordano earns James Norris Memorial Trophy

Members of Giordano's family came prepared for his victory, pulling on "We The Norris" caps, a riff on the "We The North" motto of the NBA-champion Toronto Raptors.

And sitting in the front row was Brad Wheeler, Giordano's skating coach for the past 15 years, crying tears of joy.

"I could lay down in my grave tonight and be happy," Wheeler said as he and the Giordano clan headed for photos backstage, an emotional wreck long after the Norris had been presented. "I can't dream this good."

Giordano was laughing about his dear friend pretty much melting into his seat at the awards.

"Wheels is the most excited guy out there by a mile. The tears were flowing, and I'm not going to let him live that down for a while," said Giordano, who paid for Wheeler and his wife to fly to Las Vegas as a gesture of thanks for their friendship and the work they've done together.

It was 24 hours earlier that Wheeler was already talking about "raising the roof" in celebration. As Giordano's on-ice trainer and coach, he has helped to shape the Flames defenseman in person during the offseason and by long distance during the season.

"Winning the Norris would mean everything," said Wheeler, 58, who trains Giordano from May through early August at a rink in Brampton, Ontario, about 25 miles northwest of Toronto. "The Norris would be a reward for all the work Gio puts in. Nobody is like this guy. He's a machine. That's why I love him."

Video: Giordano on winning Norris Trophy, commitment to team

Their work has not been without challenges. On Feb. 25, 2015, Giordano tore a biceps tendon, ending the season for the Norris candidate, whose 48 points were tied for the NHL lead among defensemen. But he recovered strongly from surgery and the past four seasons has missed a total of five games.

Wheeler knew he had something special 15 years ago when a friend told Giordano that he should head over to South Fletchers Sports Complex in Brampton.

Their relationship has evolved, more a partnership than that of teacher-pupil, and even from a distance during the season, they're in constant touch. Wheeler records every Flames game, breaks them down, and relays his thoughts by phone or in a flurry of text messages.

"His work ethic, no lie, is off the charts," Wheeler said of Giordano. "Nobody works harder on and off the ice than he does. Nobody.

"He knows his body, and I only push him as far as I know he can do it on the ice. They say he's crazy off the ice too. In the summer, he's crazy, he's like Sidney Crosby with his work ethic. His No. 1 commitment is to the ice and training.

"But his greatest strength is here (he taps his temple). His hockey IQ is off the charts. You can teach someone how to do something, but you still have to be able to think."

Video: Giordano and Monahan speak from NHL Awards red carpet

Back home, Wheeler said, a group of 500 or more would be watching the awards telecast, ready for a celebration that would indeed "raise the roof."

"The other day I had an open skate, and Mark skated with 10-, 11-, 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds," he said. "He did the same drills we do together, parents taking pictures. Figure how many kids of mine he's skated with for 15 years. Gio has been on the ice eight times already this summer. We've been working a little earlier than usual, but we knew we'd miss a full week here. By the time we get back, it will be almost two weeks. Now we have to catch up."

And Wheeler is absolutely delighted about Giordano's weight gain in Vegas. The Norris Trophy miniature in a carry-on bag for his flight home to Toronto on Thursday has added a few very welcomed, hard-earned pounds.

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