By Ryan J. Harr
A true professional in every sense of the word.
A Stanley Cup champion and soon-to-be two-time Olympian who can now add captain of the United States national team to an already-accomplished hockey resume.
An even better human being.
Those are just some of the words to describe the character and career of Brian Gionta, a veteran of more than 1,000 NHL games who for the first time in 15 years was at a crossroads. The Buffalo Sabres, the team he captained for the previous three seasons, decided to move in a different direction without Gionta, leaving the 38-year-old Rochester native with a lot of uncertainty surrounding what the future may hold.
But, when one door closes, another one opens.
With the 2018 Winter Olympics looming, and Gionta a frontrunner to not only headline Team USA’s roster, but serve as its captain, the focus would soon shift to just that. The burden of not being able to play in the NHL for the first time since 2000-01 would ultimately become a blessing, especially considering the League is no longer allowing its players to participate in the international festivities. As a result, opportunities opened up for others, Gionta included.
The next step was to find ice time regularly that mirrored real-game situations. The Rochester Americans were happy to comply. The 38-year-old entered into an agreement this past October to only practice with the Amerks in preparation for the upcoming Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
“It has been a good thing for myself to stay in shape and stay active while practicing with the Amerks,” said Gionta, who was also a member of the U.S. national team at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.
For the last three months, Gionta has been a regular on non-game days at The Blue Cross Arena. The added benefit, however, is the influence his presence has had on the Amerks, especially the first and second-year players. It’s not surprising to see him be the first one on the ice and the last one to get off, often staying on late to help Rochester’s youngsters improve on their mechanics, positioning or even the basic fundamentals.
“I have been able to provide some things to some of the younger guys without stepping on anyone’s toes. So far it’s been a win-win for both sides,” said Gionta.
The former Sabres and Montreal Canadiens captain alluded that his decision to skate with the Amerks was very much a family-based one, but he is enjoying his time mentoring the young Amerks players while preparing himself for international competition.
Nonetheless, he’s been a welcomed addition to the Amerks.
“The guys were welcoming to the situation and accepted me as one of their own from the start,” said Gionta. “One of my main concerns when I met with ‘Tayls’ (Amerks head coach Chris Taylor) and Randy (Amerks general manager Randy Sexton) was that I did not want to be a distraction to the team here.”
Distraction has not been the case, but rather the wisdom Gionta has been able to impart on the Amerks.
“Having ‘Gio’ around has been quite the treat,” said second-year forward Kyle Criscuolo, who won the Calder Cup last season as a rookie with the Grand Rapids Griffins. “He has played in over 1,000 career games in the NHL, so he has a lot of knowledge and experience that he has brought.”
Criscuolo, who made his NHL debut earlier this season with the Sabres, has been impressed with Gionta, mainly with his work ethic and what he brings to the arena every day.
“Brian is one of the first guys here every day and he is still trying to get better in every drill. He competes extremely hard and is so competitive. I think he sets the tone while he pushes us, not only us younger skaters, but the older veterans as well.”
Gionta grew up in the nearby suburb of Greece, but over his career has always made it back to his hometown for off-season workouts and practice sessions with other local pros in the area. Among those include current Amerks defenseman and longtime friend Nathan Paestch.
“It is pretty cool to have him out on the ice” said Paestch earlier this season. “We’re usually together in the summer, so to be able to be together in the winter, it is extra special.”
Paetsch, too, sees the value in having Gionta around for the last few months and the impact his presence has had on the organization.
“Brian is a great guy, but for some of the younger players to be able to see him daily, it has been only positive experience for them as well as us older guys. He was a captain of two separate NHL organizations, and with his knowledge it has been great as he can offer not only lessons on the ice, but life lessons as well.”
Last spring, Amerks leading point-getter C.J Smith decided to forego his senior year at UMass-Lowell and turn pro after three seasons with the River Hawks. Smith made his NHL debut with the Sabres in April of 2017, playing on the same line with Gionta during his two-game NHL stint.
Now the duo are in the same locker room yet again.
“Brian brings some great leadership,” Smith said. “He is a guy who helps out the veterans, but he will also help us younger guys equally. He is just a great guy, not only on the ice but off it as well.”
As the Olympics are drawing near, Gionta is grateful for his time with Amerks. And while he’ll undoubtedly face another crossroads once the Olympics Games are over in February, he’s excited for whatever the future has in store for him.
“I have had a lot of fun growing with this group of guys,” Gionta said. “This experience has been great so far. I am very thankful for the opportunity. As for afterwards, I will look at what my future holds after the games, but for now it has been great.”
The only that’s missing now is a gold medal.