SPOTLIGHT: DAN GIRARDI

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

One of the great success stories in Hartford Wolf Pack/Connecticut Whale history continued Thursday when defenseman Dan Girardi was one of three New York Rangers named to the NHL All-Star team.

Girardi, who earned his first All-Star selection, was joined by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist and right wing Marian Gaborik, locks to be named for the third time among the 36 players chosen to play Jan. 29 in Ottawa. It’s the first time since 2002 that the All-Star selections included three Rangers, and another of the first-time selections was goalie Jonathan Quick, a Hamden native who starred at Hamden High, Avon Old Farms and UMass before joining the Los Angeles Kings, for whom he has a league-high six shutouts this season.

And to think that when John Tortorella was hired as Rangers coach on Feb. 23, 2009, he called one of his new defenseman Joe Girardi, referring to the New York Yankees’ manager.

“I didn’t know his name,” Tortorella said earlier this season. “I didn’t know who the heck he was.”

Tortorella eventually learned Girardi’s first name and soon realized how important the defenseman is to the Rangers.

The world got to know Girardi and his family when they 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.

“I’ve been here long enough that the fans and team know that I’m relied on out there and my responsibility is to be ready every night to play those minutes without letdowns,” Girardi told NHL.com. “If I’m playing 30 minutes and I’m not at my best, that’s a lot of ice time out there that is not being played very well. So that’s my responsibility, is to be ready every game and do what I can.

“I like being held accountable. The first couple of years I was a young guy just trying to play a steady game, but people are relying on me more now. I like the responsibility.”

Tortorella and teamamtes have appreciated Girardi for years.

“He does everything,” said Tortorella. “It’s a pretty simple explanation. If people are honest about watching his guy play, especially how he is beginning to in the last couple of years improve offensively, he brings everything to a club.”

“He’s the backbone of our defense,” said captain Ryan Callahan, one of Girardi’s closest friends and fellow Wolf Pack graduate.

“He might not be talked about like (Detroit’s Niklas) Lidstrom or (Boston’s Zdeno) Chara, but he means that much to our team,” said defensive partner Ryan McDonagh, a Rangers stalwart since being called up on Jan. 3,2011.

After helping the London Knights win the Ontario Hockey League title and Memorial Cup in 2005, Girardi signed a two-way, free-agent AHL contract with the Wolf Pack after going undrafted two years earlier. He began the 2005-06 season with the Charlotte Checkers, then of the ECHL, but Wolf Pack injuries earned him a call-up to Hartford, where he had eight goals and 31 assists in 69 games.

After getting two goals and 22 assists in 45 games to start the 2006-07 season, Girardi received his first call-up to the Rangers on Jan. 27, 2007, due to an injury to Darius Kasparaitis. Since that call-up, Girardi has dressed for every regular-season and postseason game that the Rangers have played, except for two games 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.

This season, the 27-year-old Girardi was named an interim alternate captain while former defensive partner Marc Staal recovered from post-concussion syndrome. Staal’s absence helped lead to Girardi leading the NHL in ice time at 27:18 while getting three goals and 12 assists in 40 games. McDonagh filled the No. 1 defensive pairing with Girardi. Staal returned last week and played in his fifth game Thursday night against the Phoenix Coyotes paired with Stu Bickel, called up from the Whale on Dec. 19.

Girardi grew up in Welland, Ontario, playing with Whale right wing Andre Deveaux and wing Daniel Paille, who helped the Boston Bruins win the Stanley Cup last season, on the Welland Tigers in the OMHA’s Niagara District and South Central AAA Leagues. Girardi was a member of the OMHA Minor Atom AAA Championship team in 1995 and an OMHA Finalist team in Minor Peewee in 1997.

Now, Girardi is a NHL All-Star and underrated no longer. Congratulations to one of the best guys around – on and off the ice.

Others named to the All-Star team were forwards Corey Perry, Anaheim; Tyler Seguin, Bruins, Jason Pominville, Buffalo; Jarome Iginla, Calgary; Marian Hossa, Chicago; Patrick Kane, Chicago; Jonathan Toews, Chicago; Jamie Benn, Dallas; Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit; Mikko Koivu, Minnesota; John Tavares, New York Islanders; Claude Giroux, Philadelphia; Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh; Logan Couture, San Jose; Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay; Phil Kessel, Toronto; Joffrey Lupul, Toronto; Daniel Sedin, Vancouver; Henrik Sedin, Vancouver; and Alex Ovechkin, Washington.

Defensemen: Zdeno Chara, Bruins; Brian Campbell, Florida; Ryan Suter, Nashville; Shea Weber, Nashville; Kimmo Timonen, Philadelphia; Keith Yandle, Phoenix; Alex Edler, Vancouver; Dennis Wideman, Washington; and Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg.

Goalies: Jimmy Howard, Detroit; Carey Price, Montreal and Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues.

The previous fan choices were Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf and defenseman Erik Karlsson and forwards Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek of Ottawa.

Two captains will be picked, and one is almost certain to be Alfredsson, captain of the Senators. The teams will be drafted by Bruins coach Claude Julien and his staff and the Rangers John Tortorella and San Jose’s Todd McLellan, whose teams had the best records in the Eastern and Western Conferences as of Monday.

The 12 rookies named for the Young Stars event are Luke Adam, Buffalo; Justin Faulk, Carolina; Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado; Ryan Johansen, Columbus; Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton; Craig Smith, Nashville; Adam Henrique, New Jersey; Adam Larsson, New Jersey; Colin Greening, Ottawa; Sean Couturier, Philadelphia; Matt Read, Philadelphia; and Cody Hodgson, Vancouver.

Speedy left wing Carl Hagelin, called up from the Whale on Nov. 24, was considered a leading candidate for the Young Stars event but was not selected.

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