by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.
With a population of about 6,000, very few secrets last long in the northern outpost of Hearst, Ontario.
Say, for instance, you woke up one morning and found a chunk of peanut butter on your windshield. Chances are you’d find out pretty quickly who did it.
But just in case you never had the right connections to crack that code, the culprit was probably local prankster Raymond Giroux.
“I don’t think they were too happy,” said Raymond’s son, Philadelphia Phantoms rookie Claude Giroux. “But he was just trying to get them back. They probably pulled a prank on him.”
There isn’t a whole lot to do in Hearst, as Claude readily admits. You either hunt or play hockey, he said. And laugh, too. Residents apparently do that a lot, as well.
Claude has taken the best of those latter two activities and combined them to burst from virtually nowhere to a promising pro career.
Giroux, a 20-year-old right wing for the Phantoms, is the fifth-leading rookie scorer in the AHL with 19 points (9g, 10a). To hear those around him tell it, though, he is second to no one in the keeping-it-light department. As in, his father’s sense of chicanery didn’t skip a generation.
“He’s a guy you have to stay on your toes when he’s around,” said roommate Michael Ratchuk, a defenseman. “He gets his jokes in when he can.”
When pressed for an example, Giroux hides behind the defense of what happens in the locker room stays in the locker room. But that’s a long ways from a not guilty plea.
“There’s a time to be serious, but I try to be loose,” he said. “I don’t really try to be funny. I just like to have fun, mess around. It just gets me on my game. I play better when I have fun.”
If only some Ontario Hockey League team had realized how Giroux’s zest translates to productivity on the stat sheet, he might have dominated that league instead of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
Like most pro hockey players, Giroux couldn’t be kept off the frozen pond as a youngster. Unlike most players, though, Giroux grew up just a long wrist shot away from where Santa Claus lives, so braving the elements takes on a whole new meaning in Hearst. School would be canceled there just out of sheer, brutal cold. Those were the types of days when Giroux and his buddies laced ’em up.
“We’d put a lot of clothes on," he said. "We didn’t go too long. We tried quick shifts, I guess.”
Hearty dedication doesn’t count for everything when it comes to hockey’s intersection of sport and business. Giroux never landed on the OHL’s radar and was snubbed in his draft year for that league. So he tried out for Gatineau of the QMJHL and made that team instead.
“When I went to Gatineau, I tried to stay positive,” Giroux said. “I just went there to have fun, be happy I was playing at a high level. I didn’t think I was that good.”
Giroux contradicted himself with an outburst of 103 points in 69 games as a rookie in 2005-06. That caught the Flyers’ eyes, and the team took him No. 22 overall in the 2006 Entry Draft.
Giroux soared from there, putting up 112 points two seasons ago and 106 last season. He captained the Olympiques in 2007-08, taking the team to the QMJHL championship and earning the QMJHL playoff MVP award after scoring a staggering 51 points in 19 postseason games.
“I think everything was just lucky bounces everywhere,” Giroux said. “I had a lot of chances.”
Giroux’s “luck” must have wheels because it’s followed him to the Phantoms. He scored the game-winner in the team’s first contest and later ran off a seven-game points streak.
“There’s things you can teach players growing up," said Ratchuk. "The things he does, you can’t teach. "He’ll come back to the bench and you’ll think, ‘How did he do that stuff?’ He makes people around him better.”
Though it wasn’t in the original plan, Philadelphia has squeezed him for every drop of talent. A torrent of injuries and call-ups left the Phantoms short up front, and that’s meant head coach John Paddock has pushed him onto the ice for about 25 minutes a game. Paddock had hoped to keep that to around 19-20, but Giroux just can’t be spared on the power play or penalty kill.
“He’s a real creative guy," said Paddock. "He’s a real smart player with the puck, without the puck. There aren’t really any issues with him on the defensive side. He doesn’t make me nervous in any way on the ice. After the season, he’ll adapt to do whatever he has to do to reach the NHL.”
Maybe all of Giroux’s laughing is a way to help distract him from how gassed he is.
“Well, when you play three games in three nights, you get tired,” he said. “But they give you a lot of rest, eat good, you do little things like that, you are ready for the games.”
Being alert is important when you tempt revenge by wearing the joker’s hat. Ratchuk promised the crowd in the room has payback on its mind, but he just can’t pinpoint what it might be.
“Oh yeah, I’ve been trying to think of a way,” he said. “But he’s pretty good at knowing what’s going on around him, so he’s going to be hard to get.”
After years of sizing up his targets, Giroux knows better than to underestimate them.
“We’re having a lot of fun this year,” he said. “I just hope they do something legal.”