During the Flyers’ two-mile fitness test run at training camp in 2007, Danny Brière became well-acquainted with the back of Claude Giroux’s head.
Giroux, a “scrawny, little kid fresh out of juniors,” lapped Brière and others as they trekked eight times around the track at Eastern Regional High School in Voorhees. To make the feat even more impressive, Giroux had just arrived in Philadelphia the night before from Vancouver after playing coast-to-coast games with the Team Canada junior program.
“He didn’t look very strong, he didn’t look really like an athlete,” Brière said, then paused. “Neither did I, by the way.”
Then-general manager Paul Holmgren watched Giroux, the Flyers’ choice with the 22nd pick in the first round of the 2006 draft while seated at the infield of the track.
“All of a sudden, I see out of the corner of my eyes somebody pull up a chair and sit next to me,” Holmgren said. “[Giroux] was a pretty confident young man even back then. And he says, ‘So, what are your plans for me this year?’ Just kind of matter-of-fact. I thought it was pretty funny.”
Ultimately, the Flyers sent Giroux back to the Gatineau Olympiques for one more season of junior hockey. But the following year, he would make the club and lay the foundation to become the face of the franchise for the next decade.
Giroux’s competitiveness and stamina exhibited during that training camp, Brière said, left an impression on his teammates.
“It just seemed like he had another gear,” Brière said.
Thirteen games into the 2021-22 season, Giroux, who turns 34 in January, seems to have found another gear once again. In the final year of his eight-year, $66.2 million deal, the Flyers’ captain is tied for the team lead lead in points with 12 points (five goals, seven assists). He started the season with a career-high six-game point streak, becoming the first Flyer to do so since Peter Forsberg and Simon Gagné in 2005-06.
“When everybody’s doing their job, it makes everybody’s job a lot easier,” Giroux said. “Playing with great players and the chemistry that me, TK [Travis Konecny] and Coots [Sean Couturier] have right now, it just makes my job a lot easier.”
Giroux’s start to the season has been reminiscent of his 2017-18 season pace when he averaged 1.24 points per game. That year, he finished fourth in the Hart Trophy voting with a career-high 102 points, good for second in the league behind Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid (108).
“He’s shooting the puck more and harder than I’ve ever seen,” Brière said. “I think that’s probably the biggest surprise to me. It’s just been fun to see him be hungry to score goals the way he has this year.”
In his 14th full season with the Flyers, Giroux still plays a prominent role, from top-line left winger to key member of the top power-play unit.
“You’re not surprised when he’s doing well because he does all the right things,” Konecny said. “Even when he’s not, he’s still contributing to the team by just being a good captain and making sure everyone’s on the right page and ready to go.”
While Giroux continues to excel for the 2021-22 Flyers, uncertainty looms in the future. For the first time in his career, Giroux is in the position to become an unrestricted free agent.
Before the season, Giroux and general manager Chuck Fletcher agreed to table contract extension discussions until after the season. With his focus set on getting the team back to the playoffs after missing them last season, Giroux said “the last thing I would like is a distraction” that would come with negotiations.
But with such a strong start to the season, is playing in a contract year a motivating factor for Giroux?
“No,” he said. “I don’t even think about it.
“That’s a lie. I think about it, but I try not to think about it.”
Although the external factor of an expiring contract might come into play, no one, according to Brière, is more internally motivated than Giroux. Not just in ice hockey — from playing street hockey in the driveway with Brière’s sons when Giroux lived with his family in 2010-11 to arm-wrestling larger players (Jody Shelley, Jaromír Jágr and Dustin Byfuglien each fell to Giroux), the captain has to win at everything.
Perhaps the only person who knows that to be true better than Giroux himself is former Flyer Jake Voráček, who played for the Halifax Mooseheads when Giroux was in Gatineau.
“I remember we were the favorites to go to the Memorial Cup [in 2008] and Gatineau swept us in the semifinals,” Voráček said. “Trust me, I was hearing that for all 10 years I was in Philly. Every year at least two or three times I heard it.”
Giroux’s individual achievements will solidify his legacy as one of the best players to ever don a Flyers sweater regardless of whether he returns next season. In franchise history, he’s second in games played (955), second in assists (592), third in points (870), and just five points away from breaking Bobby Clarke’s record (333) for power-play points.
Despite Giroux’s best efforts, the most significant honor he has yet to attain is a Stanley Cup. Regardless, Voráček said Giroux shouldn’t be under any sort of pressure to prove his value to the organization.
“I think it’s a little bit different when you’re doing that when you’re 34 or if you’re playing for your basically biggest contract of your life, right?” Voráček said. “If you are 25 or 26, the pressure is a little bit different. I think everybody knows what G is capable of and what kind of player he is. At 34 years of age, he doesn’t have to prove anything in some kind of way.”
While Giroux’s strong start shows he’s capable of contributing, he’ll be tasked with sustaining that success over the course of 82 games. That prospect hinges on whether Giroux can stay healthy, which he’s been able to do throughout his career.
Since he became captain in January 2013, Giroux has appeared in 671 of a possible 678 games.
“If you’re asking me, what do you need to see [from Giroux]?” Holmgren asked. “You need to see basically what Claude’s doing. He’s still a player, top performer for the Flyers. He’s a top point producer. He still runs our power play.
“He’d be a pretty easy guy not only for the Flyers to target as an unrestricted free agent but for a lot of other teams to target as well.”
Giroux has made it clear that he wants to be a Flyer for life. In the salary-cap era, few players manage to play at least 10 seasons in the NHL for a single team. Only three retired players who predated the salary-cap era with at least 10 seasons of service can call themselves lifetime Flyers: Bill Barber (1972-84), Clarke (1969-84), and Jimmy Watson (1973-82).
Reaching unrestricted free agency is a privilege — it’s a reflection of a player’s tenure in the NHL and an opportunity to command his worth in compensation. However, first-timer Giroux isn’t looking forward to it.
“I think the only scary part is I’d like to finish as a Flyer, the rest of my career,” Giroux said. “But saying that, that’s what I mean. It’s kind of scary to think that I might not.”
Giroux has kicked his game into another gear that he’ll look to maintain. But on the other side of the equation, it’s up to the rest of the team to give Giroux a reason to stick around beyond this season.
“At this point for a guy like Claude, I don’t think it’s about another contract and about money,” Brière said. “I think it’s about the chance to win. He hasn’t won a Stanley Cup here. It’s a really good team this year. I think he wants to be part of that solution.
“He wants to be a difference-maker like he always has.”