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NEW YORK -- Rangers amateur scout Rich Brown immediately liked what he saw in a young Dan Girardi.
Matched up against Corey Perry in the 2004 Ontario Hockey League playoffs, the undrafted 19-year-old defenseman helped lead the Guelph Storm past the future Hart Trophy winner and the London Knights in the Western Conference Finals. Traded to London the following year, Girardi contained Rimouski's Sidney Crosby better than anyone had ever done to help secure the Knights' first Memorial Cup title.
There was an impressive subtlety to Girardi's game that intrigued Brown. The six-foot outlet pass made under pressure in the defensive zone. The shot-blocking. The positioning. Girardi's ability to get in lanes. His penalty-killing.
Girardi was, in Brown's estimation, a player capable of doing all the little things necessary to play at the NHL level.
|"Guess you can say I was a late bloomer," Dan Girardi says.|
So he called his friend Mark Hunter, co-owner and general manager of the Knights, to find out what Girardi was like off the ice; if his character was as steady as his play.
Hunter relayed a simple anecdote.
Early in the 2005 OHL playoffs, Girardi had casually mentioned some soreness in his right hand after he blocked a shot. Not much was made of it -- Girardi simply taped it up and carried his team throughout the next three rounds of the playoffs. In the afterglow of the Knights' first Memorial Cup Championship, Girardi's hand was X-rayed.
It was broken.
That told Brown all he needed to know.
"That shines a light on the type of character he has," Brown said. "His will to win."
That determination has taken the 6-foot-2, 200-pound native of Welland, Ontario, far from his junior hockey days and allowed him to excel at each stop along the way, even when his path proved unorthodox.
The 27-year-old blueliner, once an overlooked, undrafted free agent, climbed the ranks of the ECHL and AHL to where he is today -- the cornerstone of the Rangers' defense.
"I guess you can say I was a late-bloomer," Girardi said, modestly.
Few people could've predicted the devastating effects from the blow delivered to Marc Staal by older brother Eric of the Carolina Hurricanes during a game last February.
Marc Staal, at 24 regarded as the Rangers organization's top defenseman, shared a shocking revelation once training camp began this September -- that he was still suffering from exertion-related headaches stemming from a concussion sustained on the play.
An exciting offseason for the Rangers -- the team inked coveted free-agent center Brad Richards to a nine-year, $60 million deal -- suddenly seemed less promising.
Beyond the most immediate concern for Staal's health and well-being was another nagging question: How would the Rangers get by with one half of the team's shutdown pair?
"When we lost Marc, we weren't sure how that was going to go," coach John Tortorella said. "but Danny is just a settling influence."
Without Staal, who logged a team-best 25:44 per game last season, Girardi has gobbled up the big minutes on the team's back end.
Girardi leads the league in average ice time among defenseman -- playing a whopping 27:41 per game -- and rarely looks winded.
Between shifts he's mentoring his defensive partner, second-year player Ryan McDonagh, on the bench. The two talk about how the opposing team is coming through the neutral zone, where the openings are, where to make a play.
And when he's out there, he's leading by example.
Blocking shots, finishing checks, winning puck battles and making that unmistakable first pass so quick and understated it often goes unnoticed.
"He's not the flashiest guy," said 24-year-old Michael Sauer. "But he's one of those players that's going to go out there and do the dirty work."
Girardi's presence has had a galvanizing effect on the whole defensive corps, a group that has shown tremendous resolve despite Staal's absence.
Young players like Sauer, McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto have flourished under his leadership, and he has led the efforts of a group that has gotten solid contributions from third-pair players Jeff Woywitka and Steve Eminger as well.
The Rangers' strong defensive play has been a key component in the team's success in the first quarter of the season -- they're allowing only 2.14 goals against through 22 games, good for third in the league. The 14-5-3 squad is only three points removed from the Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh Penguins, with four games in hand.
|Girardi is central to the Rangers' success.|
"He's the backbone of our defense," said captain Ryan Callahan.
When the NHL released its 2012 All-Star fan ballot, Girardi's name was conspicuously absent.
The big names -- Lidstrom, Chara, Pronger, Doughty -- were all there, but Girardi was not included as one of the 36 best.
Staal was even listed, the result of a field pre-determined before the severity of his condition was known.
"This league," Tortorella said, stewing with disgust. "It's because he's not pedigree. There's no pedigree there. Our league is so ass-backwards when it comes to that."
The snub prompted Rangers fans to launch a write-in campaign for Girardi, and others within the organization to come to his defense.
"He might not be talked about like Lidstrom or Chara," McDonagh said, "but he means that much to our team."
The very strength of Girardi's game may be the reason why he sometimes flies under the radar, according to Rangers assistant general manager Jim Schoenfeld, one of Girardi's most vocal supporters from the beginning,
"He does so many things that are understated," Schoenfeld said, before describing a typical Girardi play:
"There's a scramble beside the net, everybody's running all over the place and all the sudden Danny comes up with the puck," Schoenfeld said, gesturing to the door to his office a mere four feet away. "He passes it from here to the door to someone that's wide open and away they go.
"Whereas another player gets it and rim it or bang it, he sees the play as it's developing and he makes a quick outlet pass on the tape and boom, we're on the attack and the other team's caught. He'll come and change and no one will even realize who made the play because they're watching a play develop down the ice. It's a subtle play by Dan and he does so many of them."
Recognition has never come easily for Girardi.
Despite a strong junior career -- beginning in Barrie, traded to Guelph and then again to London -- he was passed over in the draft three separate times.
A frightening injury in September 2001, when Girardi suffered a lacerated spleen after a hard hit into the boards near the dashers, derailed what was expected to be a breakout season for him in Barrie leading up to his draft year.
His two best friends from Welland, Daniel Paille and Andre Deveaux, were both selected in June 2002, but Girardi's name was never called.
"That was my motivation for a while, to prove everyone wrong and show a lot of teams that they missed out" Girardi said. "That's still in my head, but it's not a main [concern] anymore."
Girardi did his part to prove himself in the years that followed but he had some key supporters on his side within the Rangers organization as well, namely Brown and Schoenfeld.
Brown kept a close eye on Girardi throughout his junior career and finally suggested the Rangers bring him into camp in 2005.
"I remember that first ice session thinking he was pretty good and wondering, how could he not be drafted?" former Rangers assistant coach Perry Pearn said.
He wasn't unleashing cannons from the point or delivering teeth-rattling hits, but he was making smart, simple plays that showed his ability to see the ice and think the game.
Although he made a strong impression that first training camp -- for both the Rangers and the team's AHL affiliate in Hartford, Conn., in the fall of 2005 -- Girardi failed to crack either team's roster.
That left him wondering what to do next and he began flirting with the idea of playing college hockey at Brock University in St. Catherines, Ontario.
"That was kind of a weird stage in my life," Girardi said. "Debating where I was going to play."
But he called his agent, who informed him Schoenfeld was interested in signing him to a two-way deal with Hartford and the team's ECHL affiliate, the Charlotte Checkers.
"Might as well give it a try," Girardi thought.
It didn't take long for Girardi to shine in Charlotte, where he stayed for only seven games before an injury to Hartford defenseman Joe Rullier prompted the Wolf Pack to call him up.
And it wasn't long there before Girardi established himself there as the team's top defenseman, even if it wasn't immediately apparent to everyone in the organization.
Schoenfeld was quick to laud Girardi as the go-to guy on the farm, but it wasn't always an easy sell.
Because of the proximity, scouts and other members of the Rangers personnel staff typically gathered to watch players in Bridgeport. Afterward they'd trade thoughts on who had played well and how guys were progressing.
And for whatever reason, Girardi never played well in Bridgeport.
"That would be the game where he'd be at the point and the puck would hop over his stick," Schoenfeld recalled.
"It wasn't that our group was a bunch of dumbbells and I was the only enlightened one, It's just that I saw the kid do those things day in, day out. The more and more people saw him, they recognized it too."
Sure enough, when Darius Kasparaitis went down with an injury in January 2007, Girardi got the call.
And he has been with the Rangers ever since.
"This to me is the Dan Girardi story," Schoenfeld said. "You go from the ECHL to the AHL with one injury and your body of work is impressive enough throughout the remainder of that year that when the big club has the injury the following year, you get called up and you never go back. It's a tremendous story and the only accolades that should be thrown are to Dan."
Girardi isn't shy -- any of his close friends will quickly point out his dry sense of humor -- but he's not a guy that craves attention or relishes the spotlight.
Anyone that knows his parents -- Mark and Carol -- can see why he's so grounded and so likeable. And his best attributes -- his sturdiness and honesty -- are evident both on and off the ice.
"He would do anything for anyone," said Boston's Paille, who along with Deveaux served as best man in Girardi's wedding. "He's selfless and he's like that even in how he plays."
Said Deveaux: "If you wanted to go to one of your friends for advice, even if the answer might be what you don't want to hear, he'd be the one I'd go to. He's honest. What you see is what you get."
If there's anything that challenges his candor it's asking him to talk about himself.
Girardi is proud but modest so he becomes visibly uncomfortable when the grass-roots All-Star campaign is broached.Yes, he's aware several people have lobbied his cause, but he clearly isn't interested in making a case for himself.
"This is going to sound really corny, but I don't really care what anyone else thinks," Girardi said. "I just think of what the organization, the fans and the players I'm playing with think of me. I just want to make sure all the guys here have faith in me, have trust in me. I just want to be out there playing my hardest every shift."
As always, Girardi will allow his play to do the talking.