They arrive an hour, maybe two, ahead of game time, destined for the great big parking lot at the south end of Broad Street that is home to pretty much every major sporting triumph in this city these days.
As fans pile out of their cars clad in the Flyers orange and black, it’s apparent that for every two or three jerseys you’ll see walking up to the Wells Fargo Center, one will have a No. 28 on the back.
In a town where grit and size and pugnacity have always been hallmarks of their hockey idols – from Bobby Clarke to Eric Lindros and Chris Pronger – it’s a slim, smiling kid from way up in the boonies of Hearst, Ont., who has now captured fans’ imagination.
Less than six years after the general manager forgot his name at the draft podium, Claude Giroux has become the face of the Philadelphia Flyers.
And after a star turn on HBO’s 24/7, where the fellow nicknamed G stood out as much for his personality as his playmaking, his profile is on the rise – perhaps to the point he can help fill the void left by Sidney Crosby as one of the league’s marquee names.
He certainly has the numbers to put him in the conversation.
One month after turning 24, Giroux entered this week’s NHL games tied for second in league scoring with Tampa Bay Lightning sniper Steven Stamkos and trailing only Pittsburgh Penguins star Evgeni Malkin.
Unlike that pair, however, Giroux was never picked at the top of the draft and was a walk-on tryout in the Quebec junior league at 17 after every Ontario Hockey League team passed him over.
“When I went to Gatineau, I just wanted to play hockey,” Giroux recalled. “My dream was to play in the NHL, but I didn’t think I had a chance.”
“Too small” was the scouting report back then – and on that front, little has changed.
Giroux remains one of only a dozen NHL regulars listed under 175 pounds, but his teammates all rave how he plays big and has a rare willingness to go anywhere on the ice.
“The one thing that sets him out from a lot of players,” winger Wayne Simmonds said, “is he’s got a huge heart. He just battles for every little bit possible.”
“It’s pretty cool to hear his story,” added rookie Brayden Schenn, who lives with Giroux at his condo in Cherry Hill, N.J. “How guys always said he was too small. Wasn’t good enough. Then all of a sudden here he is first or second in scoring.”
Looking beyond his size, Giroux is in other ways a fitting Flyer.
There’s his reddish-orange hair and stubble, for one, which are an almost perfect match with the jersey.
There’s also his love for trash talk, which certainly fits Philadelphia’s hostile hockey reputation.
“He’s always saying little things to guys,” Simmonds said, laughing.
(The examples are many from 24/7 alone, including one meeting with Dallas Stars tough guy Steve Ott in the faceoff circle when Giroux asked quizzically if he was taking the draw. “I’m fifth in the league,” Ott said. “At what?” Giroux replied.)
“When I first met him, I thought he’d be a little quieter,” another Flyers rookie, Matt Read, admitted. “But he just has a ball being in the locker room. He’s kind of this glue guy that keeps everything in perspective.”
“He’s always smiling out there,” Schenn said. “I don’t know what it is. Whether we’re down 3-0 or up 3-0, he always seems to be pretty upbeat and having a great time.”
Beyond those obvious charms, Giroux is also a coach’s dream, with Peter Laviolette leaning on him as his top forward in almost every situation.
In just his third full NHL season, Giroux sits fourth among all forwards with 22 minutes played a game, including key roles both on the power play and killing penalties.
“Claude has really become a go-to guy,” Laviolette said, a reference to Giroux’s growing faceoff prowess that might as well apply to the rest of his game. “Someone you can count on.”
Unearthing a superstar was not what anyone expected when Giroux was drafted 22nd overall, a moment that made the blooper reels when Clarke misplaced his name in front of thousands of onlookers at GM Place in Vancouver.
Despite putting up 103 points as a rookie in junior that season, Giroux was still seen as merely a maybe – taken behind the likes of Jiri Tlusty, Mark Mitera and David Fischer, among others.
Even now, he can’t quite put a finger on how he got so quickly from there to here.
“Everything kind of happens pretty fast,” Giroux said. “You don’t really have time to figure out how it happened. It’s obviously a route that most people don’t take, but I think that’s what makes it so special.”
It may also explain his work ethic, learned in part from his father, Raymond, an electrician who took up playing hockey at the same time as his son.
Giroux realizes, more than most, how far he has come.
Whether he takes that next step and becomes a star beyond Philadelphia remains to be seen. But he appears to have that kind of talent and also appears to be shoo-in for Team Canada come the 2014 Winter Olympics.
For a league missing its top star to a concussion for who knows how long, Giroux’s unlikely success story may just be a worthy replacement.
“I don’t know if he likes the spotlight as much as Crosby, but I think Claude would be able to handle it,” Read said. “Certainly he’s a good role model for kids, having seen him on and off the ice. He’s a young guy you can look up to.
“I think he’s enjoying being in the moment. He makes the most of being here. And every guy tries to learn as much as they can off of him. We’re just amazed at some of the things he does on the ice.”