The Last Whaler
A little over a year ago, goaltender Jean-Sébastien Giguère called his sixteen year career in the National Hockey League quits. And in fitting fashion for Giguère, it was a quiet retirement. There were few articles, a low level press conference and little to no reaction from a sports media that is more concerned about football, the last month of baseball and even potential NHL expansion. What else would you expect from a goaltender who usually did his talking in the net?
If someone like the great Marty Brodeur was the Patrick Roy of the 2000-2010 generation of goalies, Giguère was effectively this era’s Mike Vernon. Like Vernon, Giguère had his greatest success when it mattered most, perhaps stayed around a little bit longer than he should have (although Giguère’s last three years were far better than Vernon’s) and was prevented from having more success by his more celebrated counterpart. And yet the trait they shared the most was how grounded both men were, to the point where it would lead to them being overshadowed by flashier names. The lack of flash is a reason why Vernon, seventh all time in NHL history in wins with 385, still hasn’t found his way into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Whether it affects Giguère remains to be seen. What it won’t affect is how memorable a career Giguère had; 262 wins, one All Star appearance, one Conn Smythe, one Stanley Cup and the ability to say he truly was the last of a certain kind.
Born May 16th, 1977 in Montreal, Giguère was raised in nearby Blainville, a small suburb of Montreal. Clearly talented from a young age, s Giguère started playing semi pro hockey at the age of fifteen before joining the QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) in 1993. Giguère is in fact one of the few players from any junior league to play for two teams; first the Verdun Collège Français and then the Halifax Mooseheads after Verdun folded a year into Giguère’s career. Ironically Giguère was merely okay for both teams; his career Juniors record is merely an average 81-74 with a goals against well above 3.00. Never the less, he was successful enough to be one of the only three Mooseheads to have his number retired, and was a top prospect heading into the 1995 NHL Draft. As it would turn out, the team that chose Giguère would cement his place in hockey lore.
That team was the Hartford Whalers, who drafted Giguère with the 13th overall pick in the 1995 draft. At the time, it seems clear that GM Jim Rutherford was picking Giguère to be the eventual successor to starting goaltender Sean Burke. Whether that was the case or not will never be known; Giguère would play in only eight games for the Whalers during the 1996-1997 season, going 1-4 with a 3.65 GAA. The team would infamously move from Hartford to Carolina following the season, and Giguère was shipped off to Calgary in exchange for Trevor Kidd, a move the Hurricanes likely still regret. Despite only playing eight games for Hartford, Giguère’s tenure was notable as he was the last player the Whalers ever took in the first round of the draft, and would eventually become the last active former Whaler in the NHL. As a Whalers’ fan, it’s difficult not to imagine an alternate timeline where the Whalers still exist and Giguère was the driving force behind their first championship. Alas.
Giguère’s tenure with the Flames was, in a word, frightening. He would find himself mostly playing for Calgary’s farm team in St. John’s, and it’s fair to say that it looked like Giguère would never fulfill the potential of where he was drafted. That would change when Giguère was traded to the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim for a second round pick in 2000. He would seize the starting job a year later and never looked back; in eight and a half years with the Ducks, Giguère would go on to post a record of 206-163 with a 2.69 GAA, helping the once doormat Ducks become a playoff powerhouse, including a Stanley Cup Championship in 2007.
However, the most memorable run of Giguère’s run with the Ducks would take place in 2003, the year the team would in fact lose the Cup. With the Ducks entering the playoffs as the seventh seed against the Detroit Red Wings (the defending Stanley Cup Champions), Giguère would strap the team on his back for one of the most improbable runs in NHL playoff history. The Ducks would go on to defeat the Red Wings, Dallas Stars and fellow underdogs Minnesota Wild in a combined ten games, before pushing New Jersey to seven games in the Stanley Cup Finals. Giguère’s performance throughout was astonishing, with a record of 15-6, an unreal 1.62 GAA, an even more unreal .946 save percentage, five shutouts, and an undefeated record in overtime games (7-0). His greatest feat was limiting the Wild to just one goal in four games, which briefly led to controversy when Wild players complained Giguère’s pads weren’t regulation size. Overall Giguère was so dominant that even though the Ducks lost in the Finals, he was still rewarded the Conn Smythe trophy. To this day, Giguère’s run remains one of the greatest sports performances of all time, and certainly one of the most overlooked.
After being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs during the middle of the 2009-2010 seasons, Giguère was never quite the same guy. He transitioned from being a starter into a backup, and went from a playoff team to two cellar dwellers in the Leafs and Colorado Avalanche, who he signed with in 2011. Oddly enough his stint in Colorado may have enhanced his reputation; despite only playing in 72 games over three years, Giguère has been widely recognized as a key leader for the Avs, and according to ESPN mentored number one overall pick Nate McKinnon this past season, even letting him live in his basement for the whole season. If there was any disappointment, it’s that Giguère was never allowed a real good chance to start for the Avs, especially during this past postseason when they were bounced out of the first round in seven games. I’m not sure if he would’ve made a difference, but given his past playoff success who knows? In the end, does it really matter?
When I think about Jean-Sébastien Giguère from this day forward, three things will pop into my mind. As a Whalers fan, I can’t think of a better player to be the last active Whaler in the NHL, no matter how short his tenure with the team was. As a hockey fan, I’ll never forget 2003 and the magical run he led the Mighty Ducks on. But most of all, I’ll never forget his last game, where Colorado fittingly put Giguère in net against the Ducks in the final game of the season. Giguère would ultimately go out on a loss, but the result didn’t matter as much as the post game activities, where Giguère and former teammate and future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne (also playing his final regular season game) skated around the Anaheim Pond to a standing ovation. That image will stay with anyone who has seen that clip; a fitting end to two fantastic players. Even if Giguère never makes the Hall of Fame like Selanne one day will, what more can you ask for than that?
That is the story of Jean-Sébastien Giguère, the Last Whaler, the greatest Mighty Duck. Thanks for everything Jiggy.