Iowa Wild forward Damien Giroux and defenseman Ryan O’Rourke are rarely on the ice at the same time, but both players have found their rhythm in Des Moines.
Giroux has recorded 20 points in 59 games this season, a jump from his seven-point total from last year. O’Rourke only has eight points in 61 games — not atypical for a defenseman — but does have an impressive 10 plus/minus.
They both take on a smaller role than that of their fellow forwards and defensemen. Still, Giroux and O’Rourke are critical parts of the Wild’s success.
Iowa (30-24-9) sits fourth in the Central Division and 13th in the league. The regular season ends on Sunday, Apr. 16 and, if the Calder Cup Playoffs started this week, the Wild would make the 23-team cut.
When the duo does take a shift at the same time, they work well together.
But only a few years ago, Giroux and O’Rourke not only sharing a locker room but also getting along well seemed impossible.
Embattled in a storied junior hockey rivalry
Now teammates, both Giroux and O’Rourke were part of a heated rivalry years before their time with the Iowa Wild.
Giroux played for the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) for four seasons, from 2016-20. He was named an alternate captain during his second year and was the Spirit’s captain in the next two seasons.
O’Rourke joined the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds — better known as the Soo Greyhounds — in 2018. He was Soo’s captain during the 2019-20 and 2021-22 seasons.
There were two years of overlap when both played in the same division of the OHL. In that time, both players embraced the decades of history and rivalry between their two teams.
“It definitely dates back long before our times being there,” O’Rourke said. “Being in the same division, being so close, that rivalry kind of grows every year, every game, it gets better and better. It’s always a battle in the playoffs to see who can get out of that division, Soo or Sag.”
There was a natural rivalry formed between Giroux and O’Rourke solely because of the positions they played. Giroux is a forward; O’Rourke is a defenseman. The two players were almost always on the ice at the same time.
O’Rourke described his former opponent as chippy and a player who just wanted to win. Giroux remembers what it was like going up against his now teammate.
“He was a hard-battling defenseman,” Giroux said. “He loved to finish his checks and he loved to chirp quite a bit. He wasn’t afraid to get involved in stuff after the whistle. I guess we always seemed to find each other in those scrums, and that’s where it started, from one game to the next and that kind of built up from there.”
In Giroux’s fourth season and O’Rourke’s second, there was another layer added to their rivalry. Both players were the captain of their respective teams.
That meant they were the two players who spoke to referees after a penalty, they were the on-ice and off-ice representatives of the entire roster, and they were the two players who found each other when scrums broke out.
The in-game hatred the two players had for each other only deepened. Giroux joked that O’Rourke always knew how to get under his skin. O’Rourke felt the same about his rival.
“We were always around each other,” O’Rourke said. “My second year as the captain, he was also the captain. So, it grew a little bit bigger just with the intensity and the battle we had. It was all in good spirit, part of the game.”
More in common than not
After four years in the OHL, Giroux signed with Iowa — the AHL affiliate for the Minnesota Wild, the team that drafted him in 2018 — and played his first season with the Wild in 2020-21.
Despite being two years younger than Giroux, O’Rourke joined him on the Wild’s roster that same season. O’Rourke had been drafted by Minnesota in the 2020 NHL Draft, but the pandemic altered his plans to play junior hockey.
The OHL first postponed and then canceled the season due to the ongoing threat of COVID-19. That opened up an opportunity for O’Rourke to play in the AHL, which had pushed back the start of the season until February 2021.
Instead of playing a 72-game schedule, AHL teams only played 34 in 2021.
All of those years of hatred meant nothing once Giroux and O’Rourke joined the Wild at the same time.
“Right from the beginning (in the OHL), we really didn’t get along,” O’Rourke said. “We disliked each other heavily. Coming here, that’s changed a lot. Those kind of players you play against, (who) you don’t necessarily like, they’re kind of the guys (who) you get along with.
“Once I knew I was coming here, I was pretty excited to get to know him and hear his side of the story of our battles.”
Once rivals, Giroux and O’Rourke became as inseparable as teammates can be.
The pair are neighbors in the same apartment building in West Des Moines. Their girlfriends get along, which helps the players connect, according to Wild head coach Tim Army. Giroux and O’Rourke room together on road trips.
The days of hating each other’s guts are long over.
“It’s funny how you can go from disliking someone so much on the ice to friends,” Giroux said. “It’s crazy how people change, or I guess you could say it’s because they’re one way on the ice and that doesn’t mean that’s what they’re like off of it.”
Alyssa Hertel is the college sports recruiting reporter for the Des Moines Register. Contact Alyssa at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AlyssaHertel.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: Iowa Wild teammates Damien Giroux and Ryan O'Rourke on OHL rivalry