PHILADELPHIA -- Claude Giroux's road to the NHL was a long one. His road home for the holidays seems even longer.
Giroux grew up in Hearst, Ontario (population, 6,000). The farthest drivable place in Northern Ontario, Hearst is not accessible by plane, and the options are daunting. You can either fly to Timmins, Ontario, and drive three hours, or fly to Ottawa and make the 10-hour haul.
At the edge of town, a sign used to hang that read "Moose Capital of the World," something that was Hearst's claim to fame for decades.
"The closest town is an hour away," the Flyers forward says of Hearst, which he called home until age 14. "And that's another small town, too. The closest city is Timmins, if you want to call that a city."
Driving to Hearst when the weather cooperates is one thing -- but Hearst's near-daily winter snowstorms make even the smallest commute a challenge. The average high temperature in December hovers close to three degrees Fahrenheit and the normal nightly low is more than 10-degrees below zero. It isn't unusual for Hearst to have temperatures at minus-40, where Celsius and Fahrenheit actually meet on the thermometer.
Two summers ago, Giroux decided to hold his first annual charity golf tournament in May and it actually snowed the night before, leaving snow on the rough of the nine-hole course.
Hearst is almost 600 miles north of Toronto. The hometown of Flyers captain Mike Richards, Kenora, Ontario, is more than double the size of Hearst.
"It's a small town," says Giroux, who will be home for Christmas for the first time since 2007 thanks to the Flyers' five-day break. "It's a hockey town, everybody plays hockey. Hunting and fishing are pretty famous there. And in the summer, everybody plays baseball. It was a great place to grow up."
Giroux's thick French-Canadian accent comes from Hearst, where an estimated 96 percent of the town speaks in French. That is a rarity in Ontario, where just 4 percent of the province uses French as its native tongue.
And pretty much everyone in the town, where the games are broadcast in French, roots for the Montreal Canadiens. Native son Claude Larose, for whom Hearst's only hockey rink is named, won five Stanley Cups with the Canadiens as the first Hearst-born player to make it to the game's biggest stage.
Thursday, night, the Claude Larose Center will have a standing-room-only crowd. Giroux will be in the building for a charity shinny hockey game, along with some of his closest friends and former teammates. Tickets for the event, priced at $25, sold out in less than two hours for the 1,500-seat arena. Some waited in line for four hours just for the chance to get tickets and see Giroux.
"It's an unbelievable thing," Giroux says. "I remember when I was a kid, Eric Desjardins came to Hearst for a hockey school. I remember meeting him, I was 8 years old, and he was the first NHL player I ever met. I was pretty jacked up about that. It's nice to go back to Hearst and hopefully give that same feeling to those kids."
In fact, Giroux' grandmother still works at the rink that he and his family grew up in. The snack-bar attendant, she proudly wears her Flyers shirt to work in the previously Canadiens-only town.
"They never missed any games back home," Giroux says of his grandparents. "When I played there, she used to give us little candies or some pop or a hot dog from the snack bar. She just likes being around hockey people and watching hockey."
In Hearst, the lumber industry is king. Even though Hearst is surrounded by dense forest, the nearby lumber mills were hit hard by the worldwide economic downturn, causing the citizens to turn to hockey even more so as a release.
"It hasn't been doing very good," Giroux says. "I think about that. Hopefully it will come back up."
Giroux moved to Ottawa with his family when he was 14 to play for the Gatineau Olympiques in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. He says that was a "big deal" for the people following him back in Hearst.
"Ottawa is the next closest city for us," he says. "Pretty much every one of my friends lives in Ottawa now. If you want to go to college, there is a French university there, so that is your next best choice."
But Giroux has not forgotten about Hearst. He still visits at least once a year, usually in the summer. During the Stanley Cup finals last season, before Giroux scored the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 3, he was awoken from his pregame nap by close friend Luc Deschamps, from Hearst, saying he would make history that night.
"This city lives and breathes hockey," says Claude Breton, one of the town's residents who has followed Giroux's career closely. "We have a local radio station that has a call-in show with 'Santa Claus' and all of the little kids are asking for Flyers tickets to see Claude play in Ottawa against the Senators. We are all living the dream through Claude now."
In a lot of ways, Giroux carries the weight of Hearst on his back. Larose played in the 1960s and 1970s when the television broadcasts weren't often available in Hearst. Rumun Ndur, another native son, played 69 games as an enforcer but was one of the few in town who grew up speaking English, which almost made him an outsider.
And Joel Gagnon, a fourth-round pick of Anaheim in 1996, passed away in a car accident at age 22. Giroux is already Hearst's hero as he carries the torch for future generations.
"He was my age ... when he got in a car crash. It was terrible," Giroux says. "Now I have this great chance in the NHL and it is a great motivator for me, to get the support of the whole community. It's an unbelievable feeling."