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A profile in persistence, Gionta hopes to pan Olympic gold

scottteaser-215x160Hockey, like life, is filled with rejections. Shots ricochet off pads and posts. Occasionally, you get blind-sided with a check that smashes you into the boards or onto the ice. Success often is determined by your persistence, by your desire to show your pluck chasing that puck. Bloodied but unbowed, you must pick yourself up. You must keep skating and shooting until you find a way to ram that vulcanized rubber disk into the back of the net.

In four-plus decades covering sports, I’ve encountered few athletes more persistent and determined than Brian Gionta, a pint-sized, 5-foot-7 winger who’s made a career of out-hustling, out-working and out-thinking people who sell him short.

The finest hockey player in Rochester history had hoped to finish his career with the Buffalo Sabres, but when a new regime took over after last season, Gionta was shown the door. Other teams expressed interest in signing him, but he was faced with a dilemma. The 16-year National Hockey League veteran did not want to uproot his wife and three kids a fourth time. Nor did he want to spend 10 months away from them, living in some lonely apartment in some faraway city. But the recently turned 39-year-old also wasn’t quite ready to hang up the skates and say, “The puck stops here.”

It just so happened that the NHL opted not to interrupt its season this time around for the three weeks its players would need to compete in the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea. By closing that door, the NHL opened one for Gionta. USA Hockey was looking for experienced players to fill its roster. Officials immediately targeted Gionta, who had logged 1,006 games with the New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens and Sabres. It also was a plus that he had played on the 2006 U.S. Olympic team in Torino, Italy. The prospect of returning to the Winter Games intrigued him. After spurning NHL overtures before and during training camp, he accepted USA Hockey’s offer.

To stay in shape, he arranged to work out daily with the Rochester Americans. It proved to be a win-win. Gionta was able to stay in hockey shape, and the young players on the Sabres’ top farm team loved being mentored by a guy who once scored 48 goals in a season and won a Stanley Cup.

It also was beneficial to Gionta because it allowed him to live at home and become more involved in his kid’s activities—activities he often had to miss during the slog of never-ending NHL seasons. So after skating and lifting, he was able to attend his daughter’s violin recitals and help coach his sons’ youth-league hockey teams.

“This so-called semi-retirement has been both rewarding and challenging,’’ he said recently. “It’s enabled me to be more involved in my kids’ lives, and that’s a great thing. And I’ve been able to stay close to the professional game through my practices with the Amerks. For more than three decades, my life revolved around my hockey games. It’s been different and strange this time around, but in a good way.”

Gionta came out of “semi-retirement” recently and scored a goal for the Rochester Americans in the first game he ever played for his hometown team. Well aware that Gionta was using the American Hockey League contest as a tune-up for the Olympics, the Blue Cross Arena crowd of 9,836 erupted into chants of “U.S.A! U.S.A!”

“It sends chills up your back when something like that happens,’’ Gionta said after realizing a boyhood dream of playing for the Amerks.

He hopes to experience more spine-tingling moments in the coming weeks. He became familiar with the “Miracle on Ice” story when he was about 12. It was inspiring, learning how a group of amateur hockey players from the United States upset the mighty Soviet Union and went on to win Olympic gold at Lake Placid in 1980. “It was the ultimate underdog story,’’ he said. “And I love underdog stories.” Gionta would have fit in perfectly on that team. He’s been an underdog and an overachiever his entire life.

At Boston College, he scored an NCAA-record five goals in one period on just five shots, led the nation in scoring and captained the Golden Eagles to a national championship his senior year. Despite those lofty achievements, there were doubts he could succeed at the next level. Selected 82nd overall in the 1998 NHL draft, Gionta defied naysayers by helping the Devils win the 2003 Stanley Cup and setting a single-season franchise goal-scoring record. He later became only the second American to be named captain of hockey’s most famous team, the Canadiens. He also wore the captain’s “C” while playing for the Sabres, and will do so again when the U.S. hockey team takes the ice for its first game next Wednesday in South Korea.

“I love the enormity of the Olympics,’’ he said. “There’s nothing like it.”

He’s hoping for a better outcome than in 2006, when the U.S. failed to medal, despite his robust scoring. The 2018 American squad faces an uphill battle against powerful teams from Russia, Canada and Europe.

“It’s not going to be easy,’’ he said. “But I believe we can come together quickly and make history. I’d love nothing more than to come back and share that medal with the Rochester community that has been so supportive of me.”

And after the Olympics? There’s a good chance some NHL team could use a player with Gionta’s experience and guile for the stretch run. Playing for the Amerks is a possibility, too. And after that it wouldn’t be surprising to see Gionta involved in coaching or player development.

He’d be great at it. He knows what it takes to succeed. He would provide a profile in persistence that’s hard to beat.

Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.

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