ROCHESTER, N.Y. — For someone once constantly told he was too small to have an NHL future, Brian Gionta is enjoying a few last laughs entering the twilight of his career.
At 38, the 5-foot-7, 180-pound forward has no regrets with the decision he made last summer to put family and flag first to forego a chance at playing a 17th NHL season.
Rejecting at least one contract offer in July because it would’ve meant relocating his wife and three children, Gionta chose to pursue an opportunity to represent the United States at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, in February.
“It was not an easy decision by any means, but in my heart I knew it was the right one,” Gionta told The Associated Press.
More important, he added, it was a decision he could make, as opposed to having someone else make it for him.
“You’re at peace with it at the same time because you’re able to have made it,” he said. “It’s working so far.”
Gionta is enjoying the benefits of being with his family in Buffalo while training individually at the Sabres’ hockey complex. And then there are the occasional trips he makes to his native Rochester, where he has an open invitation to practice with the Sabres’ American Hockey League affiliate.
As for his Olympic aspirations, Gionta was awarded the captaincy upon joining the U.S. National team for a three-game Deutschland Cup tournament in Germany two weeks ago. National team general manager Jim Johansson said Gionta was an obvious choice as captain given his accomplishments.
Aside from representing the U.S. at the 2006 Winter Games in Italy, Gionta has captained the Montreal Canadiens and Sabres, and won a Stanley Cup with the 2003 New Jersey Devils. He’s scored 15 or more goals nine times, including last year in Buffalo, and overall has 289 goals and 588 points in 1,006 career games.
“Early on in his career, it was obviously, ‘Is he big enough?’ or whatever, and people started to find out both his compete and heart level,” Johansson said. “There’s so many things he can bring to us not only as a hockey player, but there’s that other component. And that, from a coach’s and manager’s standpoint, is irreplaceable.”
They’re important qualities to add to what will be a patchwork team made up of journeymen — most of them playing professionally in Europe — and college stars because the NHL won’t be represented at the Winter Games for the first time since 1994.
Gionta was among the first players Johansson identified when it came to building his roster.
“You start putting teams together, the first thing you want to do is start to identify your core leadership,” said Johansson, who is scheduled to formally announce his 25-player roster on Jan. 1. “I’m going to take advantage of all the guys that I’m surrounded by, and Brian is one of those people.”
Though focused on the Olympics, Gionta can’t help but wonder what the future might have in store.
He hasn’t ruled out continuing to play. Gionta has also gotten a glimpse at the player developmental side of hockey, given his interactions with Rochester GM Randy Sexton and coach Chris Taylor.
“I’m open to anything,” Gionta said. “You’re still in the game, one foot in, one foot out, and enjoying all the things around it, while still having an eye on the future.”
Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock questioned why most NHL teams are so secretive when it comes to disclosing injuries. Speaking to the media before the Stars’ home game against Montreal on Tuesday night, he said most reporters can deduce on their own which part of a player’s upper or lower body is hurt, so why not just reveal it?
“Our feeling is just tell them what the injury is and move forward and stop the dance,” Hitchcock said, in comments posted on Twitter by The Athletic/Montreal. “And players don’t go out and say, ‘He has a broken left pinkie and we’re going to go after that pinkie.’ Nobody thinks like that.”
Hitchcock represents an exception to the approach by most teams. The Sabres, for example, referred to forward Alexander Nylander as being day to day after suffering a lower-body injury on Sept. 9. Nylander missed nearly two months.
Sabres first-year coach Phil Housley is starting to lose his patience with a team that is 0-4-2 in its past six games and sits last in the Eastern Conference standings. Housley attempted to shake up his club by moving franchise star Jack Eichel off the top line. The move lasted two periods before Eichel was back playing alongside leading scorer Evander Kane in a 3-2 loss to Columbus on Monday. The Sabres (5-12-4) have scored two or fewer goals 14 times this season.
The Arizona Coyotes, who opened the season 0-10-1, won three straight during an Eastern Canada swing, capped by a 4-1 win at Toronto to snap the Maple Leafs’ six-game winning streak. The Coyotes matched their best run since March 11-14. They haven’t won four in a row since Jan. 4-12, 2016.
Goals: Nikita Kucherov (Tampa Bay), 17; Points: Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay), 35. Points by defenseman: John Klingberg (Dallas) and Alex Pietrangelo (St. Louis), 20. Rookie points: Clayton Keller (Arizona), 20. Goals-against average: Sergei Bobrovsky (Columbus), 2.02.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Stamkos and the East-leading Lightning travel to play Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night.
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