Michael Futa was the general manager of the Owen Sound Attack when Mark Giordano was 18 and approaching a career crossroads. Giordano, a Tier 2 junior at the time, had enrolled at York University and was about to pick his classes when Futa came with an offer to play major junior. It was a dilemma – for the team and for Giordano.
"Because he had his college set, you had to be prepared to offer a pretty substantial education package to commit to the guy," Futa recalled. "So I went to watch him play, and then went to the [Giordano's] house [in Toronto] and sat with the family." And at that point, Futa knew Giordano had a future. "I've never met a more humble kid, someone you knew you could hang your hat on.
"I've always said he and Wayne Simmonds were the two most easy-to-read, genuine human beings I ever had, that they were going to do everything possible to get to where they had to be."
"[Giordano] is the only kid who was undrafted everywhere. We never drafted him in the [Ontario Hockey League]. We couldn't get anybody to draft him in the NHL, but he just keeps kicking down doors."
Now 31, Giordano has officially become an NHL star. The captain of the Calgary Flames – who make their only visit to Toronto this season to play the Maple Leafs Tuesday – is the league's reigning player of the month, after scoring 16 points in 13 games as the Flames went 9-4 in November. He was also plus-12, tops in the league plus-minus rankings, during that span.
Going into last night's games, he was 10th in NHL scoring overall, and tops among defencemen. Last month, when the league circulated a press release announcing the format for all-star balloting, it dropped the usual names (Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, Duncan Keith, Ryan Miller) and a handful of new ones (St. Louis forward Vladimir Tarasenko, Columbus centre Ryan Johansen and Giordano).
A third of the way through the season, the Flames are unexpectedly in the playoff race in the Western Conference. Despite a 3-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks Saturday night that snapped a four-game winning streak, Calgary is third in the Pacific Division. According to coach Bob Hartley, Giordano is a big part of the reason why the Flames are off to such a good start, as he sets the tone every day – at practice and in games – with the blue-collar style that's made them so successful.
He's modest to a fault, and so even though he's starting to get a lot of individual attention for the season he's having, he deflects most questions about his performance and impact, and credits team play and their system.
"Honestly, I just try to play my game," he said. "I'd rather not look or read or watch things like that."
Far from an overnight sensation, Giordano didn't stick with the Flames straight out of junior. He had stints in the American Hockey League and a season over in Russia before becoming a regular in Calgary. And while he's played in his hometown before, against the team he grew up cheering for, this is the first time he returns as a star.
"I remember my first game at Maple Leaf Gardens – my dad somehow got tickets, we were way up in the greys," Giordano said. "I was a young kid – five or six years old – and I'll never forget it. They were playing the Penguins. They lost 8-6, but that building was unbelievable, the atmosphere. Growing up, I was just a big, huge Leaf fan."
He plans to avoid the spotlight during off hours in Toronto. "I'm going to go and see my family."
According to Futa, now the vice-president of hockey operations for the Los Angeles Kings, when Giordano arrived for his first training camp in Owen Sound, he didn't even have matching equipment.
"I remember the owner's looking at me like, 'Who is this guy?' because this guy comes out on the ice looking like he's playing for Vic's Video in the Sunday night league," Futa recalls. "He ended up having an unbelievable year for us, and by the time he was done, he was the OHL over-age player of the year and Calgary [scout] Tommy Webster loved him to death.
"It would have been the easiest sneaky fix ever if I was in the National Hockey League at the time. He wouldn't have been going anywhere but where I was working. You knew he was going to play. Then it was just a matter of letting his natural personality, leadership, fitness, commitment and everything else kick in – and see where the ceiling ends up."