By Erica Whyte
Since the start of the 2017-18 season, Rochester Americans fans knew that Friday, February 2 was Hometown Heroes night, but what they didn’t know was that it would also be the night that their own hometown hockey hero would make his Amerks debut.
Rochester native Brian Gionta spent his childhood watching the Amerks in the stands at The Blue Cross Arena, playing mini-sticks in the hallways, and participating in mini-games during intermissions. However, his Amerks minor hockey jersey was the closest he ever got to actually becoming an Amerk – that is, until earlier this week.
On Monday, it was announced that the Amerks had signed Gionta to a one-game Professional Tryout, giving the 39-year-old one final tune-up before heading to Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, which begin next Friday. He’s practiced with the Amerks regularly since October.
“The organization has been great from day one, and the guys have been great, so it’s been a great year and this is just one more step,” Gionta said after Thursday’s practice at Bill Gray’s Iceplex. "This gives me a little chance to get ready, and it’s fun to be out there with the guys you’ve been practicing with for a few months.”
WATCH: BRIAN GIONTA SPEAKS WITH THE ROCHESTER MEDIA AFTER PRACTICE
Gionta, who will serve as captain of the U.S. national team, has appeared in 1,006 National Hockey League games with the Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens and New Jersey Devils over a 16-year professional career in which he has recorded 588 points (289+299) and 375 penalty minutes. Gionta has also compiled 68 points (32+36) over 112 career playoff appearances and was a member of the 2003 Stanley Cup-winning Devils.
The 5-foot-7 forward has served as team captain in each of his last seven seasons, including the previous three in Buffalo. He totaled 103 points (40+63) in 230 career games with the Sabres from 2014-17, appearing in his 1,000th NHL game during the 2016-17 campaign.
When asked about the decision to sign Gionta, former Amerk and current head coach Chris Taylor said that it was an easy decision for many reasons, one of which was that after knowing each other for almost 15 years, Taylor has been able to witness first-hand the connection that the people of Rochester feel to their hometown hockey hero.
WATCH: CHRIS TAYLOR SPEAKS WITH THE ROCHESTER MEDIA AFTER PRACTICE
“I skated with Brian I think 12 or 13 years ago when I was playing, and as I got to know him, I was able to learn what a special person he is to the community and what he means to this community. For him to play in front of the hometown crowd with an Amerks jersey on is special. I’m happy for him, and I’m happy for our hockey team. I’m happy for our whole organization and for our whole city. It’s going to be a special night.”
After spending the first half of the season fighting for first place in the North Division and with both teams sitting in top spots in the league, the Toronto Marlies will be in Flower City to face the Amerks for the fourth time this season. A win will knot the series at two apiece and bring the Amerks to within three points of their division foe, who currently sit in first place overall in the AHL. This is exactly the kind of challenge that Gionta is looking for.
“Toronto is a great team, obviously where they are in the standings,” he said. "I like that challenge and hopefully I can help the guys out.”
Adding Gionta to the Amerks lineup will not only be beneficial for his Olympic preparation, but it will also be a huge developmental tool for the Amerks, especially to the younger Amerks.
"He mentors a lot of the young kids, and a lot of the kids look up to him, so it’s going to be good that they’re actually playing with him, and see what he does on the ice during the game,” said Taylor. "It’s a good learning experience for some of our young guys to watch him in a game, actually stay in front of the net, do the little things and puck retrieval. It’s not just about Gionta, it’s about helping the guys develop as well.”
And as for potentially re-signing with the Amerks once Gionta has completed his Olympic quest?
"I’ve said all along the whole year, its no secret, if a team came I’d be interested in a playoff run." But right now I’m focused on going over there and looking for a chance to compete for a medal. After that, when things settle down, we’ll see what opportunities are available.”
No matter the outcome on Friday, it’s already a win-win situation for the Amerks.