Hearst, Ontario's Second NHL "Claude" Battles Against Team of Local Allegiance

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In terms of NHL hockey fame and pride in my Northern Ontario hometown of Hearst, there is one surname that comes to mind and that is Claude, as in Giroux, currently of the Philadelphia Flyers, and Larose, a five time Stanley Cup champion with the Montreal Canadiens. The pair are pictured above as guests of honor during a 2007 hockey tournament in Hearst.

Hearst, despite it's english name, is a community that is 96% percent francophone, and Larose and Giroux are the first and third of three local boys to make the NHL. The second was Rumun Ndur, a tough defenseman who played 69 games with the Sabres, Rangers and Thrashers between 1997 and 2000. Nigerian by birth, Ndur arrived in Hearst at a young age, the son of a local doctor. In Hearst, a small but very passionate hockey town of 6000 residents, he learned to skate and played minor hockey. Three banners hang in the local arena arena lobby honouring their NHL accomplishment.

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Larose was a rugged checking right winger who enjoyed 14 NHL seasons with three teams. He has won the Stanley cup five times as a player with the Canadiens (1965, 1966, 1968, 1971 and 1973) and once as a part of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes scouting staff. In 2002, our municipality honored the former Hab by renaming the local arena Centre récréatif Claude Larose (Claude Larose Recreation Centre).

As for current Flyer Giroux, a forward with a wealth of talent, he has been garnering rave reviews since graduating to the NHL, especially in these 2010 playoffs. Many are predicting he will be a star in the NHL. With 16 points in as many playoff games, many will say he has arrived.

Giroux's first goal in game Four of the current Canadiens / Flyers series

Local residents have been supportive of Claude and his teams throughout his career so far. He was a member of a provincial Pee Wee Championship team representing the community. And Hearst residents have followed closely his junior career. In June 2008, he was paraded through town after winning, earlier in the year, World Junior Championship gold medal for Canada in Pardubice, Czechoslovakia and his junior team, the Gatineau Olympiques won the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) championship, with him getting the Guy Lafleur award as playoff MVP. As many Hearst residents did, I took the opportunity to have my picture taken with Claude, wearing his team Canada jersey.

While Hearst is extremely proud of Giroux's career accomplishments thus far, hockey fans in town presently have mixed emotions as to the outcome of the Canadiens and Flyers series. Hearst is, after all, mainly Habs' turf. And while the locals love Giroux, many people stick with the Habs. Converted Philly fans include Giroux's family members, close friends and some youngsters.

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In a town where just about everyone knows each other, there has been some friendly teasing and jabs between fans of both teams.

So far in this series, it’s been a bitter sweet experience for Hearst Habs' fans such as myself. Giroux has been a big contributing factor to the Flyers series lead against the Canadiens, scoring a goal in Game One and adding a pair of in the fourth game. Even though it’s painful to watch the Canadiens lose a game, the locals remain proud and happy for Giroux’s success.

It is additionally bittersweet because Giroux, like most kids in the community, grew up a Canadiens fan, and could have been drafted by his favorite team in 2006. Passed over by Montreal selecting 20th, the Flyers chose Claude two positions later.

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Left to right: Giroux in 2005 at age 17, wearing the Saku Koivu jersey, playing in a 4 on 4 hockey tournament in Hearst; Larose and the author with the Cup in 2002, when the local arena was renamed in his honour.

Should the Flyers go on to eliminate the Canadiens, I know that just about everybody in Hearst will be hoping for Giroux to have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup, knowing surely that the local hero would probably bring the Cup back to the community.

Giroux’s story and ascent to the NHL is quite amazing when you think about it. You've seen the 2005 photo where he his wearing a Canadiens jersey. I remember watching him then. It had been three years since he and his family had moved ten hours up the road to Ottawa, but he kept coming back to Hearst on a yearly basis. Still of midget age, Giroux had just completed a season for the Junior A Cumberland Grads, and he returned to Hearst that April to play in a 4 on 4 tournament along with other junior friends from the area. Amazingly, Giroux's team won the tournament, beating some very high caliber teams, formed of other juniors or men's players. Giroux was only 17 at the time and he really worked his magic in that tournament and openend a lot of eyes in Hearst.

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Claude Giroux, pictured at left with Francis and on the right with Francis' nephew Dominick

Still, no one could have predicted that just one year later he would be an NHL first round draft pick. What Hearst residents saw during that 4 on 4 tournament didn’t do much to raise his stock among OHL scouts, who either had not known about him then or simply ignored him in the OHL draft.

Instead, Giroux received and made the most of a tryout with the Gatineau Olympiques of the QMJHL. The rest, as we say, is history. During that first season with the Olympiques, his stock rose and rose and by the end of the season, we knew Giroux would be high NHL draft choice. Many Hearst residents who were watching that NHL draft that saw the Canadiens pass over him, choosing defenseman David Fischer instead. Then, two positions later, Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke stepped to the podium to announce Giroux as the team's selection and promptly forgot the player's name momentarily.

Personally, Giroux reminds me of Guy Lafleur in many ways. He’s a deceptively fluid skater with great moves and a great vision. Although he is immensely talented, he's also hardworking and has a great desire to win. You can feel his passion and joy when he’s on the ice, as he smiles frequently. Off the ice, he is as humble a person as you will ever meet.

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Claude Larose's story is no less amazing than Giroux's. For Larose, it was quite an accomplishment to reach the NHL during the Original Six era, cracking the lineup of the very strong Montreal Canadiens. In the late 1950’s, someone in Hearst with connections approached the Canadiens to inform them of a local kid with possible NHL potential. Later, Larose was told to present himself for a tryout in Ottawa.

The tryout was successful, but Larose was told to get new skates, as the ones he had been using were two sizes too big. His parents had bought them that way because Claude had been playing alot of hockey on an outdoor rink for his school team and he wore two pairs of wool socks for games. Larose made the cut at tryout, signed a contract with the Canadiens and was assigned to play with the junior Habs affiliate Peterborough Petes, where he was developed into a future NHLer.

Larose was a good scorer in junior with the Petes and minor pro with the Omaha Knights and Houston Appolos. He went on to produce five twenty goal seasons in close to 1000 NHL games, but on the talent filled Habs, Larose, a physical player, was mostly used as a checking forward. His experience and leadership qualities made him captain of the North Stars in 1970, but he was missed by Montreal fans and reacquired from Minnesota two years after being traded. In December of 1974, the Canadiens sent Larose to the St. Louis Blues, where he enjoyed three prosperous seasons, including a career high 29 goals in 1976-77.

Claude Larose was an inspiration for Hearst and area residents. He proved that it was possible for somebody from the small town to make it big, or at least to have success in your area of interest, when you are passionnate about it. Claude Giroux is a continuation of this and he's now the torch bearer for Hearst, delivering the message to a new generations of kids from the area.

Read Hearst Ontario native Pierre LeBrun's article on Claude Giroux

In 1973, the Montreal Canadiens and the Philadelphia Flyers met in the playoffs for the first time. In the video below, you can see Claude Larose and some of his other Canadiens teammates in Game 4 of that semi-final.

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