The Olympic journey for Brian Gionta begins Monday night when he boards a flight to Germany to meet up with his USA Hockey teammates ahead of next week’s Deutschland Cup.
The Americans will play Slovakia, Russia and Germany in the tournament hosted by the German Ice Hockey Federation. It’s the first step for USA Hockey as they look to identify the players who will make up their roster at the 2018 Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.
Gionta is one of two players — Ryan Malone being the other — on the 29-man roster for the Deutschland Cup who has played in the Olympics. After the Buffalo Sabres declined to re-sign the veteran of 1,006 NHL games, he spent the summer searching for another NHL gig. While he and his agent had contract talks with a few teams, nothing came to fruition.
Earlier this month, once the Olympic option came on the radar, the 38-year-old Gionta began skating with the AHL’s Rochester Americans to stay in shape. His time is now spent skating during the mornings and hanging out with with his wife and three kids the rest of the day.
We spoke with Gionta on Friday, one day after he was in New York City for the Team USA WinterFest event.
Q. What do you remember most about your Olympic experience in 2006?
GIONTA: “It was a dream come true. Just the whole enormity of it was so much fun. Obviously, disappointing how we finished [knocked out by Finland in quarterfinals] and that’s a driving force making that a better finish this year.”
Are surprised that you have this opportunity again given the NHL’s decision not to go to PyeongChang?
“Yes, for sure. Considering the past involvement and future sites coming up, I thought for sure they’d still be involved. Clearly, the decision was made on the NHL’s part to not allow those guys to go. How things shook out for myself late summer-ish, I didn’t really have it on the radar until things played out the way they did.”
When did your summer go from pursuing another NHL contract to heading in this direction where you could be part of the Olympic team again?
“Right up in through camp and during camp, still had a couple of teams that called with some interest. But with my three kids, the ages they’re at, it was a tough transition to make for them to be going someplace else. When we made the decision not to move the family or me move away from the family, USA Hockey had called and said they’d be interested if I was not playing in the NHL.”
Have you closed the door on playing again in the NHL?
“You never know. I would definitely not close the door. If the right situation came across, I’d have to think long and hard about it, for sure. But at the same time if nothing changes I’m completely excited about the prospect of playing in the Olympics and having a chance at a medal.”
As one of two guys with Olympic experience on the roster, what kind of advice could you pass along to your teammates who’ve never participated in one?
“The biggest thing is to enjoy it. It goes quick. On the ice, it’s not much you can say, it’s more trying to be a calming force in big games because you’ve been a part of bigger games throughout the career. It’s just trying to be a steady force to settle things at times.”
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How much of an advantage is it to have these tournament games as opposed to flying from your NHL city and thrown right into competition like in previous Olympics?
“It’s big. It’s an advantage to be together with some of the guys that will be on that team. But it’s also a big advantage because the whole coaching staff’s going to be over there. It’s the first case you get to implement the system that they want and playing within that. In year’s past, you haven’t had that luxury of being able to play for that coach or with those guys until you get over there and you have a couple of practices and you’re right into it.
“It’s definitely a unique situation. It’s a cool situation to have where you’re able to go over next week and get to know the guys, get to play with the guys and also get a feel for the coaches and their styles.”
Having been part of the Players’ Association, do you believe Olympic participation should be worked into the next Collective Bargaining Agreement?
“If the players want it, that’s a way to safeguard themselves away from the NHL being able to come in and out of certain Olympic Games. If it’s built into the CBA it’s a binding thing and you have a little more say in that. If the players and the PA want more control then having it in the CBA allows them to have a little more say when it comes time for those Games.”
From you experience internationally, when you have that many players coming together for a short tournament, what are some important things to do in order to start developing chemistry?
“Some of those little team bonding things you can do. But mostly it’s hanging out together, getting to know each other, getting a feel for where everyone’s come from and their backgrounds and creating that bond in a short period of time. It’s unique because we have that next week to be able to do some of that and even on your practice days before the games you have some time to build in stuff like that and try to build some chemistry and speed up that process a bit.”
Finally, whenever the time comes have you thought about what you want to do after your career is over?
“Over the last couple of year you start thinking about it. Still unsure with what direction that would be but I think in the current situation being able to practice with the Amerks in the AHL you’re kind of in-between. You’re in-between the players, you’re in-between coaches and management. So I can take this year to feel out the development side, feel out the management side, feel out the coaching side that when you’re immersed as a player and playing games and constantly grinding through the season, you don’t have that time to sit back and learn those things. I’m hoping to use this year to learn and maybe give some more direction to where the next few years will lead me.”
MORE: PyeongChang Olympic hockey schedule
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.