- Scott Burnside, NHL
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VOORHEES, New Jersey -- Maybe in some places it doesn't really matter upon whose jersey the captain's "C" is stitched.
Just a letter, right?
If that's so, Philadelphia is not one of those places.
For better or worse, up or down, Stanley Cup celebrations or angry confrontations, being the captain in Philadelphia is to be set apart.
Whether it's a tradition that includes Hall of Famer Bob Clarke, the most famous of all Flyers captains, or the long and emotional time that Eric Lindros wore the "C" for the Flyers, or the often fractious relationship between former captain Mike Richards and the large and competitive Flyers media community, or the all-too-brief tenure of the most recent captain, Chris Pronger, naming a successor to Pronger was a big deal in Philadelphia.
As it should have been.
And while it might not have come as much of a surprise that the Flyers turned to rising star Claude Giroux to take on the most visible mantle of leadership in pro sports -- the big "C" that separates all captains from the NHL's rank-and-file -- it speaks volumes about the belief that Giroux is more than simply the sum of his skilled parts.
It also speaks to the formalizing of a new era for the Flyers, an era that began last season with the preseason trades of Richards and running mate Jeff Carter.
Those deals were made for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was to open more doors for Giroux to expand his role with the team.
In the playoffs, Giroux cemented his role as the de facto captain of the Flyers when, with Pronger long out of the Flyers' lineup with post-concussion issues, Giroux went toe-to-toe with Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby in the first round, at one point dropping the gloves with the Pens' superstar. After the Flyers allowed a 3-0 series lead to become 3-2, Giroux laid a decisive hit on Crosby to open Game 6 and then scored a crucial goal moments later as Philadelphia vanquished its longtime archrival.
If the Flyers didn't know beforehand, they knew at that moment who their next captain was going to be.
"I mean, that was a big day for us. We had let it slip from 3-0 to 3-2 and they were coming back and their momentum had gained a little bit," coach Peter Laviolette said after the Flyers' last training-camp workout at their suburban practice facility Friday. "I think it speaks to the person who we just named captain of wanting to make a difference in a game.
"I said that when we first talked about Claude. It is that every day he wants to make a difference -- he wants to be an impact [player], whether it is practice, or in the room, or in a game. And that's why he is the leader of this team."
Sometimes captains are forced into their roles, an exercise in square peg, round hole. Sometimes those players evolve into the role; sometimes it is something they can never fully accept, and it stunts their growth and the growth of their team, by extension.
There are no guarantees, of course, but the bestowment of the captaincy on the player everyone calls "G" seems as natural a fit as anyone could imagine, and it bodes well for a team that continues to rely heavily on a young, talented core in its annual pursuit of its first Stanley Cup since 1975.
"I think 'G,' even though he may be young in captain years, he's one of those guys who was almost born to be a leader," Giroux's linemate Scott Hartnell said Friday.
Hartnell is an example of the impact Giroux can have on those around him. Playing mostly with Giroux and the since-departed Jaromir Jagr, Hartnell exploded last season for a career-best 37 goals and 67 points and earned a trip to the All-Star Game in Ottawa.
"You look around, even the last couple years, he takes the bull by the horns, 'G', he's proactive in including everybody; there's no cliquey groups or anything like that," Hartnell said. "He makes everybody that's in here feel comfortable, and I think that's one of the biggest things for a captain, to make everyone feel welcome and lead by example."
Max Talbot has a unique vantage point, having grown up in the Penguins' organization when Crosby was named captain in 2007, just his third season in the NHL. Talbot signed with the cross-state-rival Flyers before last season and believes Giroux, who at 25 is the same age as Crosby, was an obvious choice.
"I don't think there's a better guy in this room to be captain," Talbot said. "Honestly, you look at what he did in the playoffs last year, his whole season, he was leading us. When you're a leader, you're a captain, you're the guy that works the hardest on the ice, that competes every shift and that's got a lot of passion. I think these are all the qualities of a great leader."
As for Giroux's trying to do too much to earn the captaincy and perhaps getting out of a rhythm after being an alternate captain last season, Talbot seemed unconcerned.
"No. I think even last year, having Prongs out of the lineup for most of the year, you could tell that [Giroux] was leading the team and taking charge, and I don't think a letter change from an 'A' to a 'C' ... he might come out in a little more pressure situations for a lot of people, but we all support him. I think he's the right guy," Talbot said. "He's going to be ready."
Giroux certainly is aware of the responsibilities that come with his new position, but he has repeatedly said he doesn't plan to let those responsibilities upset his own approach to the game, even as he prepared to step onto the ice for the first time on Saturday carrying that additional burden.
"Obviously, I think about it. At the same time, it's not going to change my game. I still have the same focus and I just want to go on the ice and try to be the best player I can be," Giroux said Friday.
The Flyers have not dramatically altered their lineup from a year ago. Veteran Bruno Gervais and Luke Schenn will fill in on the blue line given the departure of Matt Carle to Tampa (and the continued absence of Pronger).
Once again, youngsters will be asked to take on a heavy load on both sides of the puck, which doesn't sound like such a bad thing, given that one of those young guys will be leading the charge with a brand new "C" stitched to the front of his Flyer jersey.
Claude Giroux feels he is ready for the heady challenge of taking on the Philadelphia Flyers' captaincy, writes Scott Burnside.