SPOTLIGHT: DAN GIRARDI

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

One of the major tenets of sports writing is no rooting in the press box.

Well, it’s difficult not to stand up and cheer for New York Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi being named to the NHL All-Star team on Thursday.

While most of the 42 players who will be part of a fantasy-style draft Jan 27 to determine the teams for the All-Star Game two days later in Ottawa were high-priced high draft picks, Girardi never heard his name called at an entry draft. And while that’s a rarity, he’s unique in being the only one of those 42 players to have started his pro career in the ECHL.

Girardi’s eventual path to deserved recognition actually began in September 2001, when a lacerated spleen derailed what was supposed to be a breakout season, leading to him going undrafted in 2002, when Rick Nash, Kari Lehtonen, Cam Ward, Joffrey Lupul, Alexander Semin, former Yale and Rangers center Chris Higgins and defensemen Jay Bouwmeester, Joni Pitkanen, Ryan Whitney and Steve Eminger of the Rangers were among the first-round picks. Girardi’s two best friends from his native Welland, Ontario, current Connecticut Whale right wing Andre Deveaux (182nd in sixth round) and Daniel Paille (20th in first round), who helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup last spring, were also selected that year.

“That was my motivation for a while, to prove everyone wrong and show a lot of teams that they missed out,” Girardi told NHL.com. “That’s still in my head, but it’s not a main concern anymore.”

But it should be noted that NONE of the 30 first-round picks in 2002 were selected for the All-Star Game a decade later. And Girardi went undrafted two more times, even after he helped the London Knights win the Ontario Hockey League title and Memorial Cup in 2005. But Rangers amateur scout Rich Brown had closely followed Girardi throughout his junior career and finally suggested the Blueshirts bring him to training camp that fall.

Especially after what Brown learned about Girardi’s recent exploits. Early in the 2005 OHL playoffs, Girardi casually mentioned some soreness in his right hand after he blocked a shot, something he’s now noted for. Not much was made of it as Girardi just taped up the wrist and carried his team through the next three rounds of the playoffs.

But in the aftermath of the Knights’ first Memorial Cup championship, Girardi’s hand was X-rayed. It was broken.

“That shines a light on the type of character he has,” Brown once said. “His will to win.”

In the ensuing two years, Girardi started on his way to becoming one of the best stories in the 15-year history of the Hartford Wolf Pack/Whale. He signed an AHL/ECHL two-way, free-agent contract and started the 2005-06 season with the Charlotte Checkers of the ECHL. Early in the season, several injuries to Wolf Pack defensemen left an opening in Hartford, and Girardi stepped in, getting eight goals and 31 assists in 69 games.

After getting two goals and 22 assists in 45 games with the Wolf Pack to start the 2006-07 season, Girardi received his first call-up to the Rangers on January 27, 2007, due to an injury to Darius Kasparaitis. Since then, Girardi has dressed for every regular-season and postseason game the Rangers have played, except for two last season when he was sidelined with a rib injury in late January that ended a consecutive games-played streak at 330.

On Feb. 8, 2008, Girardi signed a two-year contract extension with the Rangers worth $3.1 million. On July 9, 2010, he re-signed with the Rangers, a four-year deal worth $13.3 million. Last season he led the NHL in blocked shots with 236, and this season, the 27-year-old Girardi was named an interim alternate captain while defensive partner Marc Staal recovered from post-concussion syndrome. Staal’s absence helped lead to Girardi leading the NHL in ice time at 27:16 while getting three goals and 12 assists in 41 games, mostly alongside former Wolf Pack/Whale defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Staal returned last week and played in his fifth game Thursday night in a 3-0 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes paired with Stu Bickel, called up from the Whale on Dec. 19.

When John Tortorella took over as Rangers coach nearly three ago, he called one of his new defensemen Joe Girardi, referring to the manager of the New York Yankees. He quickly learned how valuable Dan Girardi is and was upset earlier this season when Girardi wasn’t listed on the All-Star ballot for fans to select the first six players. But Staal was, the result of a pre-determined field before the severity of his condition was known.

“It’s because he’s not pedigree,” Tortorella said of Girardi’s snub. “There’s no pedigree there..”

It caused Rangers fans to launch a write-in campaign for Girardi, and others within the organization to come to his defense. Girardi didn’t get the necessary votes, but NHL coaches knew the underrated value of Girardi and made him one of 36 selections Thursday that also included Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and right wing Marian Gaborik and Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, a Hamden native who starred at Hamden High, Avon Old Farms and UMass and now leads the NHL in shutouts with six.

But even in his finest hour, Girardi remained the low-key, lovely guy who had become known to the world when he, wife Pamela and 18-month-old son Landon were featured in the second installment of HBO’s recent “24/7” series before and after the Rangers rallied to beat the Flyers 3-2 in the NHL Winter Classic in Philadelphia.

“To be honest with you, I never really would have thought I’d ever be an All-Star, to tell you the God’s honest truth,” Girardi said before Thursday night’s game. “I had some plans tentatively, but I didn’t book anything. I honestly didn’t think I was going to get picked. I knew there was some consideration, but I didn’t want to book anything and lose my money. I’m glad I didn’t and it worked out good.”

Girardi won’t ever be confused with Hall of Famers Bobby Orr of Rangers legend and Cheshire native Brian Leetch for his offensive rushes, but he anchors a Rangers defense that is third in the NHL and ranks fourth in the league with 105 blocked shots. Even Girardi isn’t sure how his skills will translate into a four-day All-Star weekend, but he’s going to enjoy every minute of what could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

“It’s great to get the recognition, and I’m unbelievably honored,” Girardi said. “Maybe every All-Star Game, a couple guys like me will sneak in there and get a chance. I lead the league in ice time. It means a little bit, I guess. It might not be the exact role for an All-Star Game, but I feel like I’m going to have a great time out there, that’s for sure. I might as well savor every moment of that. It might be my last one. I’ll enjoy it with the family and have a good time.”

No one hopes so more than Lundqvist, who told NHL.com that Girardi “has been rock solid for a number of years, it’s just more noticeable now” because of all his ice time and having an “A” on his jersey.

“You know he’s going to do his job in front, take the hits and block the shots that need to be blocked,” Lundqvist said. “He’s definitely a good guy to have in front of you.”

Off the ice, too.

“I don’t know how many interesting things he does, but he says a lot of funny things,” Lundqvist said. “Even during the games, he says things as the play happens. Whether he makes a mistake or a good pass, he always comments on it himself. I hear him, but now I’m used to him talking to himself and saying all these funny things.”

Tortorella said an injustice had been prevented with the selection of Girardi, who joked the NHL might have picked him so “24/7” star Landon would be there. Girardi joked he’ll have to check his contract to see if he gets a bonus for being selected, and then he quipped that shot-blocking might become part of the skills competition.

“I’ll probably start with standing in front of Chara’s shot,” Girardi said, referring to the Bruins’ 6-foot-9 defenseman who won the fastest shot contest last year at more than 105 mph. “I’m really excited to see what they’ll have in store for me.”

It’s possible that Tortorella could coach Girardi’s team after the Rangers had the best record in the Eastern Conference as of Sunday, but the two had differing opinions on what that would mean in terms of ice time.

“I’ll say Torts and he’ll play me a lot hopefully,” Girardi said when asked who we wanted as his coach. “He’ll double shift me out there.”

Hoping to rest the busiest defenseman in the NHL, Torts responded, “I probably won’t play him.”

Girardi’s first trip to the All-Star Game is the latest positive occurrence for a Rangers team that has been near or at the top of the NHL for most of the season, with one of the most unassuming, underrated guys helping man the blueline.

“It’s been a pretty good half of the year so far,” Girardi said. “The team’s doing well, nice Winter Classic, HBO went well. It’s another good thing for myself and for the team to have three guys. It says something about our team. I can’t get too far ahead of myself. We still have games to win before the All-Star break.”

On a personal note, I attended a Rangers game earlier this season to research and write several stories on former Wolf Pack and Whale players who had been/were being major contributors on Broadway. Several were willing to chat before the game, but Girardi was nursing an injury and needed treatment. Plus, his pregame routine usually includes total focus, not talking.

After being dinged again during the game, Girardi was the last Rangers players to leave the training room and locker room. Rangers public relations director Brendan McIntyre was nice enough to seek out Girardi and tell him that I was waiting to talk.

It was close to an hour after the game before Girardi finally emerged from the locker room. When I approached, he immediately smiled and shook hands, though I could sense has was in a bit of hurry to leave. When I asked if he had a few minutes to chat, Girardi said “only a few because I have to meet some people.” FIFTEEN minutes later – after answering all my questions and receiving congratulations from me for his new contract and terrific season so far – Girardi finally left to catch up with his friends.

I’ve found most hockey players to be more accommodating than most any other athletes in the world, but Girardi had gone beyond the call of duty. So as he prepares for the last few games before his first All-Star appearance, please forgive me for standing and cheering for Dan Girardi.

Besides, I’m writing this in my kitchen, though I’d probably stand and clap if I was lucky enough to be in the Scotiabank Place press box when Girardi is introduced in Ottawa in two weeks.

LUNDQVIST JERSEY BRINGS $35,000

The $35,000 net proceeds from the sale of Lundqvist’s game-worn Winter Classic mask will benefit the Garden of Dreams Foundation.

Lundqvist, the spokesperson for the Garden of Dreams, commissioned two masks for the nationally televised outdoor game, with the sole purpose of making the second mask available to raise funds for the Foundation. The sale of the mask through Madison Square Garden’s partnership with Steiner Sports for MSG-Steiner Collectibles illustrates his commitment to helping fulfill the Foundation’s mission to make dreams come true for children facing obstacles.

Garden of Dreams is a 501(c) (3) non-profit charity that works closely with all areas of The Madison Square Garden Company, including the Rangers, Knicks, Liberty, MSG Networks, MSG Entertainment and Fuse. Garden of Dreams has worked tirelessly to fulfill its mission by creating unique and unforgettable events and activities, often involving unprecedented access to MSG celebrities, events and venues that have brightened the lives of thousands of special children and their families. For more information on the Garden of Dreams Foundation, visit www.gardenofdreamsfoundation.org.

WHALE ON THE ROAD UNTIL NEXT FRIDAY

The Whale plays at Norfolk on Friday and Saturday nights and at Portland on Wednesday night, before starting a five-game homestand on Jan. 20 against the Atlantic Division-leading St. John’s IceCaps, the envy of every hockey team, having sold out all 20 of their home games in their first season as the top affiliate of the new Winnipeg Jets.

The IceCaps’ 18th consecutive sellout of 6,287 at Mile One Center on Jan. 7 gave them the third-longest sellout streak in the AHL in the last decade. The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins own the longest streak, 90 games between March 2002 and October 2004. The Penguins also sold out 54 consecutive home games from December 2000 to February 2002.

“On behalf of all the players and management of the St. John’s IceCaps Hockey Club, I would like to thank the great fans of Newfoundland and Labrador for helping us attain this major accomplishment,” IceCaps President and CEO Danny Williams said in a statement. “Their support is the backbone of this organization and has played an integral part in the success of this brand new franchise.”

After two more home games, the IceCaps begin a six-game road trip through New England at the XL Center against the Whale, who have lost their first three meetings with the Atlantic Division leader. The IceCaps won 6-3 in Hartford on Nov. 4 and 8-4 and 4-3 at home on Nov. 12 and 13.

College students can get discounted tickets to weekday Whale games with the “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket office at the XL Center can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats. … A run of Whale giveaways starts with Wade Redden Bobblehead Night, sponsored by Click It or Ticket, on Jan. 21, when there will be a doubleheader as the Whale hosts Norfolk at 7 p.m. after a Canadian Women’s Hockey League game between the Boston Blades and Team Alberta at 4 p.m. in the “International Hockey Challenge Presented by Aetna.” Other giveaways include Trading Cards Set II of All-Star rookie right wing Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Cam Talbot, Kelsey Tessier, Ryan Bourque, Jordan Owens and a historic tribute to former Wolf Pack All-Star right wing and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, sponsored by Webster Bank, on Jan. 27 (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) and Trading Cards Set III of All-Star wing Mats Zuccarello, Wade Redden, Kris Newbury, Chad Johnson and Carl Hagelin, now with the Rangers, sponsored by Supercuts, on Jan. 28 (Springfield), when selected players will sign autographs on the cards after the game. … The Whale’s annual Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, is Jan. 22 from 4 to 7 p.m. at the XL Center. Whale players will serve dinner for the benefit of Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford, and other activities will include autographs and photos, locker room tours and a silent auction. Adult tickets are $30, and tickets for children 12 and under are $20. To purchase tickets, visit a table outside Section 101 at Whale games or call 860-728-3366 or 203-248-2881.

CONNECTICUT HALL OF FAME NIGHT ON MARCH 10

The Whale and Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame will host Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame Night at the XL Center on March 10 when Norfolk is in town a second time.

Eight new members to be named will be inducted before the game at 7 p.m. The first class of inductees since 1990 also will be recognized on the ice during the first intermission.

The Class of 2012 will be announced later this month, and fans will receive a special souvenir as 5,000 Hall of Fame posters will be given out courtesy of SuperCuts. For more information, visit www.cthockeyHOF.org.

WHALERS SIGN MALONEY

No, that’s not a misprint of a headline.

On Thursday, the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey signed Don Maloney Jr., the 23-year-old son of former Hartford Whalers, Rangers and New Haven Nighthawks left wing/Rangers assistant general manager/Wolf Pack GM Don Maloney, now the GM of the Phoenix Coyotes after playing 13 seasons in the NHL.

The younger Maloney is starting his second pro season, having played with the Central Hockey League’s Arizona Sundogs and ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers last season.

“He comes to us from the Phoenix Coyotes’ NHL main camp,” Whalers coach Phil Esposito said in a statement. “He’s a skilled forward with good hands and good speed. He’s a big presence on the ice at 6 feet 1 and 190 pounds. He’ll bring a physical presence along with some experience down the middle as a centerman. He’ll be a good addition to our offensive production.”

Maloney makes his Danbury debut Friday night at 7:35 at home against the 1000 Islands Privateers. The Whalers are an affiliate of the ECHL’s Elmira Jackals.

ODDS AND ENDBOARDS

Whalers Sports and Entertainment announced Friday that the Whale’s game on Saturday, January 14, at Norfolk will be broadcast on “Beethoven Radio” WCCC-AM 1290.

The Whale-Admirals tilt will face off at 7:15 PM, and the pregame show, with the voice of the Whale, Bob Crawford, will hit the air on Beethoven Radio at 7:05.

The Whale and Admirals also go at it tonight at Scope in Norfolk, with a 7:30 faceoff.  All the “Rockin’ Hockey” action of that contest can be heard live on “The Rock” 106.9 WCCC-FM.

RANGERS START TIME ON FEBRUARY 19th CHANGES

The New York Rangers announced on Friday that the start time for their game on Sunday, February 19 against the Columbus Blue Jackets has been changed to 8:00 p.m.  The original start time for the contest was 7:30 p.m.  The Sunday evening match-up at Madison Square Garden will be televised live on MSG Network.

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