Brian Gionta, who made Olympic appearances 12 years apart in addition to successful careers in college hockey and the NHL, is part of the class of inductees that will enter the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during ceremonies Thursday in Washington, D.C.
Gionta spoke with USA Hockey this week to reflect on his career in advance of his Hall of Fame induction.
USA Hockey: What does it mean to you to be inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame?
Brian Gionta: It’s a huge honor. This is just kind of icing on the cake for the many times I was able to put on that jersey and go out there and represent my country. That was, to me, the biggest honor.
USAH: Do you recall your reaction when you got the call that you were being inducted?
BG: I was actually driving with the family. [USA Hockey Executive Director] Pat Kelleher had called. I had a long history with the Kelleher family and had played with his brother [Tim] in college. When he called and let me know, I was really surprised. It wasn’t anything that I saw coming or thought would be a possibility. To have him, somebody personal, be able to call and share that news with me and then have my whole family right there, it was a pretty special moment.
USAH: Who are some of the biggest influences on your hockey career?
BG: A lot of people, starting with my parents, my upbringing and the things they allowed my brothers and me to do. I’d say a couple of coaches along the way. Coach [Jerry] York at [Boston College] was huge in giving me the opportunity to go to BC and show that I could play at that level. I think at the next level, it was, for sure, Lou Lamoriello. He gave me my shot in pro hockey and believed in me. I think his connection with USA Hockey translated into a great opportunity for me to be able to represent my country many times. On the U.S. side of things, there is no doubt it was Jim Johannson. I knew him from World Juniors and World Championships. Long before he was even a general manager who made the hockey-ops type of decisions, he was right there in the trenches with us. We kind of grew up together through USA Hockey with his role and, the further I got, we were always connected. He was huge in giving me those opportunities in the Olympics.
USAH: Is there one you can identify as the most memorable moment in your career?
BG: It’s hard to identify one. They’re all so different at different times of my career, different times of my life. Jimmy Johannson and I always crossed paths from the time I was 15 to my last year playing in the South Korea Olympics. His involvement there before his untimely passing, I’d say that is one of the longest lasting.
USAH: Can you go back to the early days and recall how you got involved in hockey?
BG: It was my brothers and me, growing up in western New York in Rochester, cold winters and my parents wanted to find three, I’m sure hyper, boys a way to stay busy throughout the winter months. They put us in skating lessons and it took off from there. All three of us fell in love with hockey and continued on. I was lucky to be able to kind of share the NHL stage and my brother being able to represent the U.S. as well with one of my siblings is amazing, too.
USAH: You have mentioned this, but can you talk more about what it meant to you to be named to that 2018 U.S. men’s Olympic team and to have that as a part of the end of your career?
BG: It came at a time when I thought my days of representing my country — whether it was at World Championships or Olympics — were over. J.J. called and broached the idea of whether I was interested. Right away, I was interested and excited about the opportunity. One, I could chase the gold medal, but, two, any time USA Hockey came calling, I was ready to put the sweater on. To do it at the end of my career like that, kind of cap off everything — you start in USA Hockey when you’re 15 representing your country and then to be able to do it still when you’re 39, to captain that team was truly a special moment for sure.
USAH: During your career, you also got to serve as captain of both the Montreal Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres. What do you think was the biggest factor in you becoming the type of player that was looked at as a leader you were throughout your career?
BG: I think a lot of it has to do with Lou Lamoriello and the New Jersey Devils at the time. Coming in as a young guy out of college and learning from your Scott Stevens, your [Scott] Niedermayers, your [Joe] Nieuwendyks, your [Jamie] Langenbrunners. With guys like that, the bar was set by Lou and from the organization on down. Being able to spend 7-8 years in New Jersey kind of groomed me to be ready to step up and take on a leadership role when I moved elsewhere to Montreal and then on to Buffalo as well.
USAH: How have you seen the game evolve, both during your playing career, and now as a hockey dad? What do you see happening in the game and it evolving through the years?
BG: The game itself has changed completely. The NHL, with the old clutch-and-grab with the bigger, stronger guys that try to slow you down to the speed and skill that it is now, I was kind of fortunate to be able to play in both eras. It was cool to see that evolution. Youth hockey, I’m not quite sure how crazy it was back in the day when I was coming up, but I’ve seen a huge growth in the game at the grassroots level. It has equated to the national stage for the U.S. You just look at the draft last year and USA and USA Hockey is on the map in the NHL and on the international level every year. In the early stages, we couldn’t say that and now we can.
USAH: What advice would you give to a young player with dreams and aspirations of playing collegiately and even professionally one day?
BG: Give it everything you’ve got, but go enjoy that moment. Enjoy that journey, because that’s one of the most important things. Without the people you meet along the way, without the relationships you have, without the teammates you have, if and when you do realize your dream, it’s about relationships, it’s about that time you spend with your teammates. When you’re on the ice with those guys, those are the meaningful parts.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.