NEW YORK, N.Y. – Brian Gionta’s hockey career began at home in Rochester, N.Y., was cultivated at Boston College, and evolved in the swamps of New Jersey. It has now reached historical significance in Montreal—hockey’s home office.
What Gionta lacks in height, he more than makes up for with heart and talent. Not only has he turned into an NHL star, Gionta has become just the second American and third non-Canadian to be captain of the Montreal Canadiens.
Generously listed at five foot seven, the 31-year-old Gionta is the Canadiens’ shortest player but holds a position that might carry the greatest stature in the NHL.
“It’s an honour no matter what, but for sure it’s a big honour to be asked to be that in Montreal,” Gionta said. “There were so many guys before you. There is so much history in the organization.
“To kind of be a part of that is a huge thing.”
From Maurice Richard to Jean Beliveau to Yvan Cournoyer, the names of Canadiens captains roll off the tongue of hockey fans the way those of Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio do in New York Yankees’ baseball lore.
The leading face of hockey’s most storied franchise was often a player of French Canadian heritage. And if not a Quebec native, at least someone who called Canada home.
That has changed through the years. American-born Chris Chelios was the captain during the 1989-90 season and Finland’s Saku Koivu from 1999 to ’09.
“It is significant because of the organization,” said New Jersey Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who also was captain of the U.S. Olympic team. “Knowing Gio and the kind of guy that he is and the type of example that he sets, there are not many better guys to pick.
“In today’s hockey, nationality really doesn’t matter. We’ve had Russian captains. We’ve had Swedish captains. It really doesn’t matter. It’s the type of player and the type of person that you are.”
The job, for all 30 NHL captains, carries responsibilities. But in Montreal the expectations are greater.
“Brian leads a lot by example, how he practices and how he handles himself on ice as well as off the ice,” Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. “It was fairly obvious to the organization and to his teammates that he is our leader in our dressing room, and that’s why he is wearing the ‘C.’
“You’re playing for an organization that has a lot of history, has a lot of tradition, and it’s a hockey market. So there is some extra pressure. I know that Brian is well equipped to handle that.”
Some of the credit can be traced to Jerry York, the coach who helped mould Gionta, starting in 1997 when he came to Boston College.
Gionta had starred in juniors, registering 156 goals and 151 assists in 129 games over three years for the Rochester Americans and Niagara Scenic, which later became the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.
He didn’t slow down under York. Gionta scored at least 30 goals in three of his four seasons at Boston College, including consecutive 33-goal campaigns in his final two years. Gionta was captain of the team during his senior season of 2000-01 when the Eagles captured the NCAA championship—their first since 1949—and led U.S. college hockey in goals.
“He, without any question, is the top player I’ve coached at Boston College,” said York, who has been coaching at his alma mater since 1994 and has won three national titles there. “A difference maker in every game over four years.
“But his leadership skills, coupled with that, made him an icon here. Whenever we talk about athletes, it’s Doug Flutie, it’s Brian Gionta. It’s those type of guys.
“We’re going to have a statue of him pretty soon outside for him. We have a Doug Flutie statue and now it’s going to be Brian Gionta statue.”
It’s not so far-fetched. The former CFL star also compensated for a lack of height with a championship drive as big as anyone’s.
“This rises above and beyond what language he speaks, what hometown he’s from,” York said of Gionta. “He’s a captain of the ship and he’s certainly well deserving.”
Gionta was drafted 82nd in 1998 by New Jersey and made it to the Devils in his first season after college. He spent 37 games with Albany of the AHL that season, but that was the extent of his minor league experience, not counting the 15 games he played for Albany in the 2004-05 season during the NHL lockout.
Gionta set the Devils’ record with 48 goals in the 2005-06 season, and finished with 152 goals and 160 assists in 473 games over seven seasons with New Jersey. He had 28 goals and 46 points in his first season with Montreal and has two goals and two assists in 14 games since becoming the Canadiens’ captain.
“He is still the same quiet, boring guy as ever. He’s just Brian,” said Scott Gomez, Gionta’s longtime friend and teammate with the Devils and Canadiens. “Since Day One since we met when we were 14 years old, he has not changed.
“He has been the same guy. He is a dear friend and it’s great to see.”
Gomez embodies the change in hockey culture as much as anyone. He is of Colombian and Mexican heritage and was the first native Alaskan to play in the NHL.
After a short stint with the New York Rangers, Gomez reunited with Gionta in Montreal last season. He believes Gionta has the perfect makeup to lead this group of Canadiens.
York sees it, too.
“It’s Derek Jeter with the Yankees,” he said. “There’s something about those particular players that besides being all-stars, and I’m sure Brian’s headed for the Hall of Fame, but he just had that quality about him that he personified leadership.”
Montreal went without a captain last season after Koivu left for the Anaheim Ducks. Over the past year, Gionta emerged as the logical successor.
“This locker room is pretty diverse,” Gomez said. “We all love it in Montreal.
“We all love the French people. The city has kind of gotten a feel for the team. We’re all proud to be Montreal Canadiens. That he’s the captain—it doesn’t matter where you’re from.”
Gionta is in the second season of a five-year, US$25-million contract that brought him to the Canadiens in the summer of 2009, and plans to make the most of it. He and his family take weekly tutoring sessions to learn French and ease their assimilation.
“I don’t think it’s important in the role of being the captain. It’s something since we came there that we’ve wanted to embrace the culture,” Gionta said. “That’s the whole part of the experience. It’s a great thing in life to be exposed to different cultures. We’ve been fortunate to have that experience. So we want to embrace it.”
He already won points in Montreal when he introduced his teammates in French before the team’s home opener. Koivu was often criticized for not learning to speak the language. The Canadiens haven’t had a French-speaking captain since Vincent Damphousse’s tenure ended in 1999 and Koivu took over.
“People will love you just for trying,” said Devils goalie and Montreal native Martin Brodeur, Gionta’s former teammate. “You don’t need much. I think it’s important.
“People expect somebody to try. You’re going into their city that is mostly French and people are proud of it.
“It has been harder for the Canadiens to go out and sign French talent to be their spokesperson as captain. There was a Finnish guy and now they’re going with an American. Hockey is changing. Usually you have tons of French guys on that team, but now there’s only a few of them.”
Gionta has left a bit of a legacy in New Jersey, too. His younger brother, Stephen, has earned a shot with the Devils. He was called up last week and made his NHL debut at home on Friday against the rival New York Rangers. He skated out in the familiar No. 14 that Brian used to wear.
Now the elder Gionta has the chance to affect the most famous of hockey franchises in a way few from his background have.
Brodeur has taken notice. He is well-versed in Canadiens history, growing up in Montreal rooting for his idol Patrick Roy and watching his father, who was the team’s longtime photographer.
“It’s a great honour for him, well-deserved,” Brodeur said. “People embrace somebody that has the work ethic that Gio has and that Koivu had.
“It’s something that translates a lot in the captaincy now because everybody is on the same page the way they act.”