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Claude Giroux got to leave Philadelphia knowing it loved him

Claude Giroux spent the past decade being the best player on a mediocre hockey team. Fans could have remembered him in a lot of different ways. On Thursday, they made it clear how they felt.

Nashville Predators v Philadelphia Flyers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

[Ed. note: this was mostly written on Saturday prior to the official news of the Claude Giroux trade being announced. Reports about how that trade may have gone down do not change anything in this piece.]

Let’s break the fourth wall for a moment here. When it came to the 1000th game, curtain call, and imminent departure from Claude Giroux that went into motion last Thursday, something that I initially wanted to talk about on this here website was, unfortunately, the haters.

Specifically, about the arguments that Claude Giroux was never good enough to be the best player on a contending team. Or that his leadership as captain caused the team to end up where they have. Or that the fact that he’s been the constant throughline on a ton of underwhelming-or-worse teams simply must mean that he’s been among the biggest problems the Flyers face.

I won’t get too far into those arguments, because they aren’t really the point here, but quickly: One could conceivably argue that no active player — in the entire National Hockey League — has been better and accomplished more on his own since the 2010s began that doesn’t have at least one Stanley Cup to show for it than Claude Giroux. It’s not a hill I’d die on, and there are a number of incredibly skilled players that have never reached the summit that deserve mention here (if you made me rank them, in all honesty, I’d probably have him third behind Erik Karlsson and Connor McDavid). But Giroux’s in that conversation, and I don’t think you could name more than five guys before getting to him. If you think you can name more than 10, you’re kidding yourself.

That is what I will say on the matter for now, and I really thought I was going to have a lot more to say. Paragraphs, numbers, videos, emotional screaming in text form, the whole deal. And ... that piece never got written. Not because it would’ve been wrong — it very much would have all been correct in my humble opinion — but because after Thursday it wasn’t needed. Because on Thursday there was the lead-up to the game that happened throughout the day, and then the ceremony, and the game, and the postgame press conference with his coach, and his teammates, and then Giroux himself, all of which finally confirmed something that I had hoped was true but always had a bit of fear that it wasn’t:

Claude Giroux knows how much Philadelphia loves him.

The road here for Giroux has not been without bumps, even if you for a moment set aside the lack of team success the Flyers have had while he has been their best player and captain. His meteoric rise from “talented young player” to “Flyers captain and singular franchise cornerstone” that began with the Jeff Carter and Mike Richards trades did have a couple of bumps along the way that he brought about on himself, such as getting suspended for the final game of the 2012 playoffs and getting a bit too rowdy on Canada Day in 2014. It would be disingenuous to act like all of that prompted serious or widespread questions from the fanbase and media about Giroux’s status as the team’s franchise player, but there were some people that had concerns.

And yet, as the Flyers went into their slow decline starting around the early-middle part of the decade, that all largely went away. Claude Giroux just became the set-it-and-forget-it best player on the Flyers, and there was no need to spend any time talking about what was going on off the ice, while we knew what we were going to get out of him on the ice: consistent excellence. (Other than a year or two where he was dealing with a core muscle injury and was then trying to come back from the subsequent surgery.)

All of that, for a team that ... didn’t win anything. Missed the playoffs as much as it made them. Won one series in a bubble in Toronto. Went all-in last offseason and currently sits 27th in the NHL. The guy who got nominated for the Hart Trophy once and probably should have been two more times, the guy who hit a point a game for an entire season five times, the guy who had That Shift, the guy who guaranteed his team would make the playoffs when they were 29th in the NHL standings in 2013 and then pushed them there his god damn self, the guy who got a hat trick on Game 82 to clinch a playoff spot ... he and his teams made it past the first round once, in a bubble in Toronto in 2020 while facing off against the 12th-best team in the East that season.

Which makes the relationship with this fanbase — especially the older part of this fanbase, which frankly was not accustomed to these kinds of playoff droughts — a bit tricky on the surface. Some thought that blaming Giroux was silly given the dreck this team has rolled out in certain spots in the lineup over the years; others thought that the captain and best player has to bear a large part the blame when the team doesn’t play up to snuff. Rinse and repeat every year for a decade, and you end up here.

Well, with Giroux’s time in Philadelphia winding down, this was clearly as good a time as any for the fanbase to make it clear how they felt about him.

But first, one related question: how does he feel about us? What does he think about this fanbase that he’s been around, and that has had a whole lot to say about him, over the past 15 years?

On Thursday night, Giroux was asked about his relationship with this fanbase and this city, on a night where a fanbase that has been utterly detached from this miserable team for months now showed up in absolute full force and at full volume. On this, he had the following to say, emphasis mine:

Yeah, I feel like I’ve had a great relationship with the fans, and the city. I just ... I get them, they get me. In the warmups, when I saw there were a lot of fans in the stands, my first lap, I was trying not to fall, and just focusing on that. But the fans are ... I love them, and that’s one of the reasons why tonight was so tough.

I get them, they get me.

At the risk of sounding a little too high and mighty, those are not just words a Philadelphia athlete can throw around willy-nilly. Among the most egregious sins a Philadelphia athlete can commit, right up there with not playing well, is not “getting us”. It’s something that sounds very silly, because ... well, it kind of is. It shouldn’t matter.

Yet, we know that it does. Think about some of the biggest names that have played in this city, even in just the last few years, and try and think of who does and doesn’t “get us”, and a few names probably come to mind on both sides of the equation. Jason Kelce gets us better than we do. Bryce Harper got us from Day 1. Joel Embiid took a bit to get there, but he now gets us quite well. Then, on the other hand, you’ve got dudes like Ben Simmons and Carson Wentz, who did not and do not get us, and they’re gone and gonna get booed any time they’re in town for the rest of their lives.

You can play poorly every so often. That’s not the end of the world — guys don’t play well every night, and we understand that. But don’t be surprised when we’re not happy about it, tell us that you’re upset about it, and leave us knowing that you want to do something about it.

What makes that last part tricky in this particular case is that Claude Giroux — as he, his coach, and his teammates reminded us after Thursday’s game — is not really an outwardly emotional guy. He is not as vocal or demonstrative during or after a game as some of those other guys are. And his run as the best player on the team has coincided with, ultimately, more losses than wins, more futility than success, and not really any major team-level accomplishments to speak of.

Which made last Thursday’s game a particularly good stress test of where exactly this fanbase stood on Giroux, and whether we really get him as he thinks we do. He was being honored for a milestone that every NHLer strives to achieve, and we all kind of knew that it was going to be his last home game. There was no better time for us, collectively, to make sure Giroux (and his family) knew exactly how we felt about him and his career here.

And Thursday happened. And, well ... we all saw it, right? We all heard it, right? The building, which has been so quiet and sparsely-populated this year that it may as well be a library on a Friday night, was packed and loud. The crowd cheered like hell as the team honored its captain, was absolutely into it as the Flyers ran over Nashville throughout the first period, and got back into it in the third when the Flyers fell into a bit of a lull. It was a crowd we hadn’t seen or heard really at all this year.

You know who knows that? You know who’s as aware of anyone how silent and lifeless this crowd has been this year? Claude Giroux, who has been around for all but two Flyers home games this year (which he missed in January for COVID isolation). You know who was there on Thursday, when for a night it was all different? Claude Giroux.

And he knows why: because of him. And hopefully, if he had any doubt on where exactly this fanbase stood on him as he entered the Wells Fargo Center as a home-team player for the final time (probably), that doubt is now gone. The emotion in Giroux’s eyes, his face, his voice, first as he saluted the crowd after the game, then when he spoke to the media afterwards ... it felt like the emotions of someone leaving a place that he knew loved him as much as he loved it.

That, as much as anything, was the best part of Thursday night. The guy who did everything he could for this team for 15 years, 10 of them being particularly thankless as he was the best player on teams that were just not good enough around him, leaves here knowing that we truly, genuinely appreciated it. Maybe not 100 percent of us — we all know that’s not true and was never going to be short of him hoisting the Stanley Cup — but there is no need to shout down the haters when we know the man himself is at peace despite them. On that night, it was made clear that for the many misgivings and frustrations this fanbase has with the Philadelphia Flyers, they weren’t on the guy wearing number 28.

Or maybe he knew it all along. After all, he gets us.