OTTAWA — Dan Girardi was 24 years old when John Tortorella took over the New York Rangers in February 2009. Never drafted, Girardi had scrapped his way from the ECHL to the AHL to the NHL. He was in his second full season as a big-league defenseman.
So in the first team meeting before their first practice together, Girardi wasn't about to correct his new coach – a Stanley Cup champion, a man famous for his intensity – even though Tortorella kept referring to him as if he were the manager of the New York Yankees.
"I kind of knew his reputation a little bit," Girardi said. "I didn't want to step on his toes or anything. And finally someone goes, 'Uh, Torts, his name's Dan Girardi, not Joe.' And he's like, 'Thanks, guys. You let me say it about 10 times.' "
Well, Dan Girardi has made a name for himself now at 27, and Tortorella can't say it enough.
Girardi won't put any super skills on display in the SuperSkills competition Saturday night. He will be perhaps the anti-star of the All-Star Game on Sunday. But there is a reason Tortorella campaigned for him, and the NHL's hockey operations department was smart to select him. He belongs alongside marquee names like Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk and Zdeno Chara and Shea Weber and Tim Thomas.
"I think sometimes our league forgets about people like that," Tortorella said.. "That restores a little faith in me, that the league stepped up and where credit was deserved gave it to him. It's not just pedigree. It's what he's done on the ice."
Girardi will not win the Norris Trophy. He will not even contend for it. That goes to the best all-around defenseman in the NHL, and Girardi has modest offensive numbers – four goals, 17 points. He is tied for 52nd among defensemen in scoring. And as Tortorella will tell you, that part of his game is improving.
But that is not how Girardi should be measured. Tortorella set out to build an identity for the Rangers, and he built it on the backs of blue-collar shot-blockers like Girardi and captain Ryan Callahan.
Girardi blocked 236 shots last season, 24 more than anyone else in the NHL. He's averaging 27:22 of ice time this season, leading the league, logging long, hard minutes. That was especially important the first half of the season while star defenseman Marc Staal sat out with a concussion.
It's no coincidence that the Rangers lead the Eastern Conference with 66 points, one point behind the Detroit Red Wings for the league lead.
"He is a core foundation guy for us, and I'll put him with anybody as far as one of the top defensemen in our league," Tortorella said. "This is a year or two overdue as far as what he's done for our organization, so it's a great story."
It's such a great story, it reads like fiction. Girardi has a storybook background, at least as it applies to the tale of his hockey career. His mother, Carol, is a nurse in Welland, Ontario, near Niagara Falls. His father, Mark, works on a General Motors assembly line. He builds engines.
"Big guy," Girardi said. "Hard-working guy."
Many role players at the NHL level were star players at a lower level. They just had to adjust as the competition stiffened.
Girardi was a star once, too. He was a forward. He was a goal-scorer.
When he was 10.
"I was a really high-skilled player in Atom," Girardi said with a smirk. "I think I got 50 one year in Atom. I've still got the puck at home on the counter. After that year, I slowly got less and less [skilled], especially in Pee-Wee when they turned me into a defenseman. That kind of just shut it down right there."
Girardi joked that his Pee-Wee coaches figured they would throw him on the back end and "see what happens." At least I think he was joking. But as he climbed from Junior B to the OHL, he simplified his game. He focused on making solid plays consistently.
When he got to the minors, he started blocking more shots. When he got to the NHL, he started blocking even more. Some people will tell you there is an art to it, and there is, to a certain extent. You need good timing. You need proper technique. But more than anything, you need toughness and desire.
"His willingness just stands out," Tortorella said.
Tortorella didn't need to go back far to find an example of Girardi's courage. Twice last Saturday, Girardi spotted Chara – the 6-foot-9, 255-pound captain of the Boston Bruins – about to launch his wicked shot, and he summoned whatever it is a man summons when he decides to put his body in front of a bullet.
When Girardi came back to the bench at one point, the Rangers thought he had broken his hand. He didn't miss a shift. The Rangers beat the Stanley Cup champs in overtime, 3-2.
"Obviously it's hard to miss the big guy back on the blue line in a big, black jersey shooting at you, but it's just reaction," Girardi said. "I think that's with our whole team, not just myself. We just go out there, doesn't matter who's shooting, just go down and take one."
Maybe Girardi would shine if the NHL had a shot-blocking competition Saturday night.
"He'd definitely win that," Tortorella said.
Alas, his only participation in SuperSkills will be to pass pucks during the shooting accuracy contest. No hardest shot. No fastest skater. He will do nothing, because as teammate Marian Gaborik said: "He can do everything. He's just a solid, solid guy and a solid hockey player."
The irony of the All-Star Game itself is that it is designed not to showcase the qualities that earned Girardi the trip. Girardi said he might finish a few checks or block a few shots, but he was only joking. Seriously, he just hopes to keep his rating under minus-3, maybe get a shot on net and not take too much crap from his teammates when he comes back.
"I think they're hoping I'm not too far over my head on Sunday," Girardi said, smiling. "I think they're just hoping I do okay out there."
Girardi will do just fine.
Nicklas Lidstrom and Teemu Selanne quietly asked not to be selected, because they have been here and done this so many times before. They'd rather have the rest. Alex Ovechkin declined to come because the NHL handed him a three-game suspension for an illegal hit. His heart wasn't in it.
Girardi is here because of his heart, and he's not taking this for granted.
"It's kind of almost surreal to actually be here and be part of something like this," Girardi said. "I'm just grateful someone picked me to be here. I'm just loving every minute of it."
Isn't a little of your faith restored, too?
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- John Tortorella