At 38 years old and after 16 seasons in the NHL, after competing at the Olympic Winter Games in 2006 and being the New Jersey Devils’ single-season goal-scoring record holder, after playing over 1,000 NHL games and having three kids with his wife, Brian Gionta has a new challenge for himself this hockey season: Just make the team.
With the NHL opting out of the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, the hockey arena at the Games will be filled with new faces in February for Team USA and a host of other international rosters. And – Gionta hopes – an old face or two, as well.
“It’s a unique situation,” Gionta said at the Team USA WinterFest stop last week in New York City that celebrated 100 days to the Olympics. “It’s unique not being part of a team but still trying to prepare for the Olympics. It’s also fun. I’m getting to experience a lot of new things this year. And I get to be around for things (with my family) that I normally wouldn’t. I still have that competitive fire going.”
That competitive fire – in addition to his skill and experience – is what Gionta hopes will help him land a spot on the final U.S. roster, to be named by USA Hockey on Jan. 1. This weekend Gionta is joining the U.S. men’s select team and Olympic team head coach Tony Granato at the Deutschland Cup in Augsburg, Germany, an event seen as an Olympic barometer – in both who’s making the U.S. team in addition to what to expect as far international competition come PyeongChang. Ryan Malone, who competed in Vancouver in 2010, joins Gionta as the only Olympians representing Team USA in Germany.
For Gionta, it’s a chance to further prove that he would be a wise pick for Granato and his staff.
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“He’s a tremendous leader and person that has always been a guy who we’ve respected because of what he’s meant to the sport and to USA Hockey,” Granato told TeamUSA.org by phone from Germany. “He is the guy who has a ton of character in my opinion and the opinion of a lot of other people in the sport. More importantly, he has a lot left in the tank. Timing-wise, it’s worked. He has a commitment in trying to make this work and that makes us really excited.”
Weeks before the NHL announced that it would not let its players compete in the 2018 Games, Gionta played his 1,000th NHL game in March of this year, suited up with the Buffalo Sabres, his team since 2014. He spent eight seasons with the Devils, winning a Stanley Cup in 2003 and notching that 48-goal season in 2005-06, still a standing team record.
It was also in that season that Gionta was chosen for the 2006 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team that competed in Torino, Italy. The Americans were stopped in the quarterfinals, losing 4-3 to eventual silver medalist Finland. Since then, the U.S. won silver (Vancouver) and placed fourth (Sochi), though Gionta wasn’t a part of either of those Olympic squads.
Twelve years after that false start in Torino, Gionta would like to get back to Olympic ice and – perhaps – collect some hardware, too.
“I’d love to be on the team,” he said. “Until the team is named, I’m still working to that as my goal. I’m a guy with experience that could help calm some nerves at times. I love playing the game and competing. I would love to win a medal, which is something that hasn’t happened during my career. I would love to add that to the list.”
The U.S. team will be a mix of high-level college players as well as U.S. pros playing in European leagues and the American Hockey League, a minor league developmental system that feeds into the NHL. Players with dual NHL-AHL contracts are not allowed to play in PyeongChang, however.
But after his completion of the 2016-17 season with the Sabres, Gionta was not re-signed and didn’t feel the urge to uproot his family – wife, Harvest, and three kids: Adam, Leah and James, ages 5 to 12 – from their home in the Rochester/Buffalo area.
The timing worked for him to make an Olympic push, and this season he has been on the practice roster – as well as helping out in an informal basis – for the AHL team in Rochester, the Americans.
“We’ve worked out a good situation where I can skate and keep in shape with those guys and help out there, which I think is a good fit all around,” Gionta said of the Rochester team.
Turning 39 in January, his Olympic and NHL experience (not to mention an NCAA title with Boston College in 2001 as captain) makes Gionta seemingly a prime candidate for a built-in leadership role for an American squad that will be in need of an experienced veteran that knows his way around Olympic ice.
“You certainly need leadership and guys who have been through it,” Granato told TeamUSA.org. “There is no better representation of that than (Brian). He told us that this is something he wants to do and I know his character… he’s going to give it his all. He’s going to do what he needs to do to play a big part in what we’re going to do in South Korea in February.”
“There has been nothing but good conversations” with Granato, Gionta explained. “I’m hoping to be a part of (this team). I’m expressing the interest and I hope to be there. We’re going through the process and hopefully – once that is all worked out – I’ll be lucky enough to be on the team. It would be awesome.”
“At the age that I’m at and the family situation is what it is currently, when this opportunity came across it was great. You still get to compete and play the game that you love to play, and hopefully check off something that isn’t on the career resume.”
Brian’s younger brother Stephen Gionta is an NHL player as well, suiting up for the New York Islanders in seasons past and currently playing in the AHL for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, an Islander affiliate. Brian has said his little brother has encouraged him in the endeavor.
“He’s been great. Really supportive,” he said. “We are extremely tight. We do a lot together, so he’s happy I have this opportunity.
It’s anyone’s guess as to what the Olympic field will look like competition-wise with NHL players out of the mix for the first time since 1998. The U.S. knows its group for PyeongChang already, however, facing off against Russia, Slovakia and Slovenia to try and advance into the quarterfinals of the 12-team event.
The team is hopeful they do, of course, and Gionta would like to be there as one of its leaders. And – should he go – there is a chance his wife and three kids would make the trip to see him play as they have many times in the NHL, but for the first as an Olympian.
“My kids are pumped up,” Gionta said, breaking into a wide smile. “Every kid – any time the Olympics are on – you watch it, you tune in, and that’s what you do all day long. Last time (in Torino), my oldest son had just been born. They haven’t been able to experience (the Olympics) like this. For them to be able to experience something like that? It would be a lifelong memory, that’s for sure.”
And another memory for Gionta, who already has a career full of them to look back on. But add the 2018 Olympics to that docket? Just maybe.