By Sean Hartnett
» More Columns
It will be strange visiting the Rangers’ practice facility in Greenburgh for September’s training camp and not seeing Dan Girardi’s smiling face.
The Blueshirts announced on Wednesday that they are buying out his contract. The veteran defenseman sewed himself into the fabric of the Rangers through 11 seasons of sheer courageousness and remarkable durability.
Every new player to walk through the doors of the Rangers’ dressing room will be challenged to live up to the standard that Girardi set. The Welland, Ontario native desired to squeeze all the talent and drive possible out of a body that NHL general managers deemed unworthy of selecting with 292 picks at the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
Girardi earned his way into the league the hard way. No matter how many games he racked up, he never dialed back an unrelenting desire to prove himself. He showed teammates night after night that he was willing to do everything and anything for the Rangers’ crest.
His irreplicable habit of absorbing the harshest punishment during games and rise to his feet while laughing off the pain was unlike anything I have ever seen in a hockey player. It was as if you were watching a hockey version of The Terminator. He would block pucks with unprotected areas of his body, take flying elbows in the corners and get chopped with opponents’ slashes and high sticks. Nothing fazed Girardi. It would have to be something truly serious to get him to come out of a hockey game.
Girardi’s face often bore the punishment of a hard night’s work. His mug was cut, bruised and swollen during postgame interviews. During the intermission of a Feb. 7 home game against the Anaheim Ducks, he tracked bloody footprints into the dressing room after sustaining a deep ankle gash. He would finish the night having played 23:09 minutes in a 4-1 victory.
Playing through the 2015 playoffs with a bursa sac on your left ankle the size of a golf ball? No problem. Gutting through most of the 2015-16 season and playoffs with a cracked right kneecap? You bet.
Through all the gut-wrenching brutality he put his body through, Girardi beamed with the smile of a kid in a candy store. This was his dream. He went from undrafted free agent to one of the league’s well-paid and universally respected defensemen.
In 910 combined regular season and playoff games with the Rangers, Girardi blocked 2,038 shots. Back in 2015, I sat down with former Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle, an ironman in his own right, to chat with him about Girardi’s legendary durability.
“For instance, when we were playing against the Wild, ‘G’ got hit in the thigh,” Yandle said. “He got hit right where there wasn’t any padding. It didn’t even faze him. He didn’t even have a grimace on his face when he came back to the bench. He’s definitely a horse, and the kind of guy you definitely want to have on your team.
“He’s a one-of-a-kind player,” Yandle continued. “You know what you’re going to get with him every night. Dan is a guy who brings it every night. He’s hard to play against. He’s a warrior who blocks shots. He plays offensive minutes and defensive minutes. For someone so steady defensively, he can also makes plays offensively. He’s really good at that.”
In an era where spreadsheets and algorithms serve as valuable tools for evaluation and every shift gets dissected, Girardi made the case for old-fashioned heart and soul trumping everything else players are measured by. How exactly could you measure a Ranger between the years of 2007 and 2017? Did he leave it all across 200 feet of ice the way Girardi did? Was he willing to do everything possible for the cause like the guy wearing No. 5 with the alternate captain’s “A” sewn on the front of his jersey?
Girardi was never the fastest skater. Nor did he possess the hardest shot. At 6-foot-1 and 212 pounds, he was neither overly athletic, nor did he have the hulking physique of some of the NHL’s defenseman. But he excelled with the Rangers for such a long time because of smarts and an ability to learn new tricks year after year.
“I think you have to use what God gave you,” Girardi told WFAN.com ahead of the 2015-16 season. “Sometimes you have to rely on your smarts and be in the right places at the right time. I don’t think I’m the fastest guy on the team by any means, but I feel I can get to the spot where I need to be and be physical. I think if you use your abilities to your advantage, you’re going to have a long career. It’s been working for me so far. I’ve never been complacent. I’ve always tried to get better, figure out ways to get stronger and do different things during the season to stay healthy and stay strong. Every day is a learning day.”
All of the positive habits in his preparation and his fierce commitment added up to something huge. Girardi ranks fifth among Rangers defensemen in games played, trailing only Harry Howell, Brian Leetch, Ron Greschner, and Jim Neilson. No Rangers skater has appeared in more career playoff games than Girardi’s 122. Only franchise netminder Henrik Lundqvist has dressed for more (128).
When the Rangers begin training camp in September, there will be no #5 GIRARDI nameplate at the corner stall he occupied for so many years. But his name will echo around the place and Madison Square Garden forever.
He will always be linked to the Rangers and their proud history.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey