Throwback Thursday: Brian Gionta still playing big after all these years
(Note: Some of the following material is from previous interviews by Snow with Brian Gionta.)
St. Patrick’s Day, 2015, and first-year Buffalo Sabre Brian Gionta is back where it all began for him in 1997-98.
How good of a ride has it been for the Rochester, New York, native now in the twilight of a neon-light career as he sits postgame after his newest team took out Boston in a shootout that night, 2-1?
“It’s great to come home,” Gionta shared with Bruins Daily about his new contract with Buffalo. “You never know where you’ll end up, but to come here and end my career is a great opportunity for me. I had a great run with other teams, but this is real good for me.”
Great runs, indeed.
After putting up 57 goals and 70 assists and 127 points for his junior team, the Niagara Scenic, Gionta took his 5-foot-7 frame to Boston College where he began one of the most prolific legacies in NCAA and NHL history.
“Jeff Farkas and I were on the same junior team at the time and he went [to BC] the year before me,” Gionta said. “When I came on my visit and saw the school and players there, I was convinced they were ready to make a run at things.”
How big were those things?
How about four consecutive trips to the Frozen Four, including three appearances in the national championship game. His freshman year the Eagles lost the 1998 final, a crushing 3-2 overtime loss to Michigan at TD Garden (then the Fleet Center). The Eagles would lose again in 2000 to North Dakota, 4-2, before taking the 2001 rematch in overtime, 3-2.
“2001 was huge for us,” Gionta said. He was captain that senior year, putting up a 31-33-54 total to max out a second-best BC career total of 123-109-232 in 164 games. His career-goal total is No. 1 all-time; he also holds BC’s record of hat tricks with nine.
“That was the year we finally broke the [championship] drought since 1949. And BU’s string of Beanpots, we finally broke through that. Then winning the national championship was a confidence booster to turn a new leaf for the university.”
That new leaf would include five more championship games for head coach Jerry York and three more titles in 2008, ‘10 and ’12 as the Eagles remain one of the top programs in the country.
Gionta’s mantra? Be true to your school.
“My whole four years, I never thought about leaving early,” Gionta said. “It was too much fun to play on those teams and live on campus and hang out with those guys. And coach York was a great influence. He keeps such a quiet profile, while you learn the game and get to play the game.”
Some of those “guys” included former and current NHL players like Marty Reasoner, Scott Clemmensen, Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik.
Next stop for Gionta was the Meadowlands where he hoisted Lord Stanley in 2003.
In 2005-’06 — the season following the lockout — Gionta rewrote the Devils’ record book by becoming the team’s unsurpassed single-season goal scorer with 48. Half of those tallies were power-play goals — also a team record.
“The lockout helped,” Gionta assessed about his increased offensive production. “But before the lockout, you learned how to deal with traffic. Once the lockout was over, the game was much more open for a faster, smaller guy. That definitely helped out in the scoring areas.”
The architect of Gionta’s pro career was then Devils GM Lou Lamoriello who plucked Gionta at No. 84 overall in the ’98 Entry Draft.
“Brian’s had success at every level he’s at,” Lamoriello said a few years into Gionta’s career in New Jersey.
“The only reason that you would look beyond him is because of his size. What he accomplished in college and the players he played against gave you no indication that size was going to be an issue. He was one of those players that at every level he went to, somebody was going to say ‘He’s too small.’ But you can never measure the size of his heart. So we felt when he came to the draft, we’d rather find out that he couldn’t play rather than somebody else finding out that he could.”
In 2009, one of sports most historic franchises gave Gionta a five-year, $25 million deal and stapled the “C” above his heart. He became the first captain with NCAA roots in Habs’ history. Gionta was unable to get the team to a parade in downtown Montreal, but the Canadiens came close last year, losing to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final.
“I have nothing but respect for the way they treated myself and my family,” Gionta said last week, reflecting about his five years north of the border.
Now back just below the border in Buffalo, Gionta has no “C” or “A” stitched in Sabre blue.
Just an underlying “L” for “Leader,” a role that continues, but a bit more under the radar after 833 NHL games with a 256-250-506 tally. Not many of the NHL’s greatest ever scored more career goals than assists.
At 36 and with a three-year deal for $12 million in place, Gionta is ready for his last challenge in a neighborhood suited for growth.
“I get to come back and help out with the younger guys,” Gionta said about his role with the rebuilding Sabres. “A chance to come home and raise my family in the part of the community where I grew up.”
How far can Buffalo go over these three years?
“Make the playoffs,” he affirmed. “Be a team kind of like Florida – advance as we rebuild and be on that bubble for the playoffs next year. In the third year, be a team beginning to establish itself as a playoff contender.”
How is Gionta holding up after 14 NHL years as a smaller player where size is prized?
“I’m 36 and I feel great; still feel like I’ve got a lot left in me,” he said. “I think the biggest thing to continue to play is I still love the game and the body is still holding up. I feel good about this team and where we’re going.”