Mark Giordano's journey from Russia to Norris Trophy contender

Mark Giordano's journey from Russia to Norris Trophy contender

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Mark Giordano understood the risk he was taking. At 23 and still finding his way through professional hockey, the Calgary Flames defenseman wanted a one-way contract, but the team preferred to keep the restricted free agent in the fold on a two-way deal. So off to Moscow he went with an $800,000 (US) contract and more ice time to come.

Spurning the Flames’ offer, Giordano signed with Dynamo Moscow of the Russian Super League. He played 50 games that season, scoring four times and recording 12 points while helping the team reach the quarterfinals.

"I think he made a big mistake," said then-Flames general manager Darryl Sutter. "A player that's finishing (a three-year) entry-level contract with limited experience in the National Hockey League is certainly not going to enhance his career by going overseas. If you haven't played 100 games or made a significant impact on an NHL team in Year 3, you're not full-fledged. You've got to make the team again."

But in Russia, Giordano got what he wanted. He was a bubble player in Calgary, whereas in Moscow, he got the minutes he was seeking and made more than what the Flames were offering. The time away from North America helped his growth.

A year later Giordano returned to Calgary with the Flames still holding his rights, but there were no hard feelings on either side and they agreed to a three-year deal.

“It was business and that’s the way it goes,” Giordano said during All-Star Weekend in Columbus. “At the time no one was convinced, not even myself, that maybe I was an everyday NHL player, so I went and tried something else.”

Almost eight years later, Giordano is now captain of the Flames and finds himself in the Norris Trophy conversation while playing with T.J. Brodie, forming one the league's top defensive pairings.

It's been a long road for Giordano, and his being passed over during the 2001 NHL Draft  he finally heard his name called Friday night when he was selected to play for Team Toews.

When Giordano was 18, he didn’t feel like he deserved to be drafted. He hadn't even played in major junior yet and felt his game needed to be better.

“I wasn’t as good of a player when I was 18,” he said. “I think I had a lot of room for improvement. Some guys are really good when they’re 18 and they’re already at that level where they can play in the NHL, but I definitely wasn’t one of them.”

Giordano then spent two years with Owen Sound in the OHL scoring 32 goals and recording 97 points. But his phone stayed silent, and he was ready to attend classes at York University in Toronto when the Flames came calling. At a summer camp, Giordano left an impression on Sutter and the wheels began to turn in his favor.

“It might be a little bit different path, but I think for myself I got a great opportunity with the Flames,” he said. “Darryl Sutter was the GM at the time and said if you play well we’ll give you a chance. It doesn’t matter if you’re drafted or not.”

Giordano spent the next two seasons playing mostly in the AHL and finally became an NHL regular in 2006-07.

Most NHL defensemen need time to grow into the position. It often takes years for players to finally understand the nuances and have the ability to read a developing play. It’s why Giordano looks around the league now and marvels at players like fellow All-Stars Drew Doughty and Aaron Ekblad, who’ve succeeded since breaking into the league.

“For young guys to come in and be really effective defensemen, like Doughty and Ekblad,” he said, “they’re pretty special players to be able to read the game the way that they do at such a young age.”

Now 31, Giordano has come a long way since that year in Russia. He currently leads the Flames and all NHL defenseman in scoring with 40 points. He's going to get considerable Norris love if he keeps his offensive numbers up and continues posting strong possession numbers against top competition.

Russian turned out to be a risk worth taking and put Giordano on the path to where he is today. He’s established himself as one of the NHL's best defensemen and a leader on and off the ice; and his influence, from his experience, has already made an impression on some of the Flames’ younger players.

“Just the way he leads our team, he’s just a great captain,” said Flames rookie and fellow All-Star Johnny Gaudreau. “As a young guy, he’s a great person to look up to and follow in your rookie season. He’s a great leader.

“I’m surprised it’s only his first game with how he plays and how hard he plays. I’m really fortunate to be on the same team as him and it’s pretty exciting to be here with him.”

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Sean Leahy is the associate editor for Puck Daddy on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!