CLAUDE GIROUX was a teenager in juniors when he strolled into the coach's office feeling pretty good about his season. He staggered out of the meeting having been figuratively slashed across the ankles. His hockey future was at a crossroads.
Giroux had scored 112 points, good for fourth in the Quebec Major League. But his team, Gatineau, was in the middle of the divisional pack and had been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The coach essentially placed the blame at Giroux' skates, said he just wasn't giving enough.
"At the exit meeting, I asked him how he felt his season had gone, and he was pleased," said Benoit Groulx (pronounced GREW). "I told him it was a deceiving season. Points don't mean anything. He wasn't doing the little things. He wasn't blocking shots. He wasn't paying attention to his defense."
It is widely accepted that Giroux has all the tools to be a very good hockey player. Great hands, excellent ice vision, terrific balance on his skates. But what might have saved his career was his ears.
"I was a lazy player," he confessed. "I didn't want to work hard."
Giroux, 19 at the time, listened to Groulx' criticisms and took them personally.
"When he came back, he changed that," the coach continued, "and became our hardest-working player."
Nowadays, people compare Claude Giroux to some of hockey's elite. The three players who finished ahead of him in the scoring race during that deceptive season are still mostly toiling in the minors. Giroux (5-11, 172 pounds) is driving a Mercedes, killing penalties alongside Mike Richards, Chris Pronger and Kimmo Timonen, and preparing to play in the Stanley Cup finals.
"He's exceptionally strong on his feet for not a very big young man," Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren said. "He has exceptional hockey intelligence. He reminds me of Peter Forsberg a lot. I've heard other people compare him to Clarkie, but he reminds me more of Peter Forsberg than Clarkie because of his ability to slow things down. Not that Clarkie couldn't do that."
In Giroux' third and final season in juniors, he still posted a very respectable 106 points in 55 games, but he also led Gatineau to a surprise championship and won the Guy Lafleur Trophy as the tournament MVP.
"Two weeks before the playoffs, he came into my office and asked to be pushed harder," recalled Groulx, now the head man at Rochester, of the AHL. "He really wanted to be a difference-maker. He knew at the next level that he had to be a better two-way player. It's fun to watch when it comes together for a player."
Giroux' imperfect dental work and nicked-up face are proof that he is no longer the high-flying kid looking to stick-handle his way through hockey life. He gets his nose dirty and his jersey bloody. He is third in ice time and tied for fifth in blocked shots among Flyers forwards in the playoffs.
It was Giroux who flipped the puck out of the zone that led to Mike Richards' unforgettable shorthanded goal in the series-clincher against Montreal on Monday. Giroux also forced the turnover that led to Arron Asham's goal, which gave the Flyers the lead for good.
Giroux has 17 points in the 17 playoff games and his plus-10 is the highest among the Stanley Cup finalists.
"He's 22 years old!" said grizzled NHL veteran Ian Laperriere. "I've never seen a 22-year-old raise the level of his game like this. He was great all year and he showed flashes; great hands, great moves, a bunch of points. But right now, it is the best hockey in the world going on out there, and he is the best player on the ice during the [most competitive] time . . . at 22! It's pretty impressive."
In the Flyers' only meeting against the Blackhawks this season, Giroux calmly feathered a pass to Chris Pronger for the game-winning goal. Less than 3 seconds remained in regulation.
"He's a very, very impressive player," Laperriere said, "and he's only going to get better and better with all of the experience he is getting right now."
It's why names such as Clarke and Forsberg are tossed his way. Giroux warns that such comparisons are way too premature.
"Well, that's a little much," he said, bowing his head sheepishly. "I don't compare to Bobby Clarke."
As legend has it, Giroux was not the Flyers' primary target on draft day in 2006. Lacking depth on the blue line, the Flyers were said to be targeting Bobby Sanguinetti, of Lumberton, N.J. But when the Rangers picked Sanguinetti at No. 21, the tale goes, it caught the Flyers off-guard. The fact that then-general manager Bob Clarke stumbled when announcing Giroux' name at No. 22 only added fuel to the story. Holmgren denies the speculation about Sanguinetti.
"Claude was the guy we had and who we were going to take," Holmgren said. "Whatever speculation there was, was kind of crazy. [Scouts] Simon Nolet and Dennis Patterson followed him closely in Quebec that year , and I did as well."
Sanguinetti played 61 games this season for Hartford, the Rangers' AHL affiliate, this season and five games with the big club. Giroux played all 82 for the Flyers. Whether it was good luck or good scouting, the Orange and Black certainly profited.
"When you are picking that late in the draft and you get a player of that magnitude, it's good scouting," Holmgren said.
When he's not playing on special teams, Giroux' primary work comes on the third line as the center to rookie James van Riemsdyk and Asham, an 11-year NHL vet.
"He likes the big games," Asham said of Giroux. "He's a clutch player. Our line has a pretty good chemistry going. He's just one of those players whose game steps up at the right time. He sees the ice so well and he's fearless. And if anyone does mess with him, I'm there to help him out."
Giroux netted the winner in the shootout against the Rangers when the Flyers clinched a playoff spot on the regular season's final day. The Flyers entered that game on a 3-7-1 slide and nearly fumbled away their postseason bid. That was April 11. On Saturday, they will play at Chicago in Game 1 of the finals.
"I can't really believe what's going on right now," Giroux said excitedly. "There's a lot of character in this room and guys really want to win. When everyone is on the same page, it's a lot easier. You could probably make a movie out of this."
So who gets to play Claude Giroux in the flick? Mark Wahlberg? Matt Damon?
"Will Farrell," he joked through his crooked teeth. "Not because I'm a funny guy. I just like the guy."
Simon Gagne's quick return from a broken toe has been a leading catalyst for this remarkable run. Gagne, who has never played in the finals, said the other day that one of his first orders of business this week was to explain to the younger players how fortunate they are to be so young and so close.
Again, Giroux' ears are wide open.
"When you see leaders like that work their [butts] off, it makes us want to work harder," he said. "This is a great opportunity. I'm in my second year. Some guys go their whole careers and never get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup. I want to make sure I take advantage of it." *