By Dan Burns
NEW YORK (Reuters) – For Team USA hockey captain Brian Gionta, it was a sure sign his career had come full circle when he realized one of his U.S. Olympic team mates for next month’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang is the son of one of his old ones.
Nearly two decades ago, when Gionta was still playing at Boston College, one of his U.S. team mates was Ted Donato, who’d played most of the previous eight years with the Boston Bruins.
Now Gionta is the seasoned pro with 1,006 NHL games under his belt, and Donato’s son Ryan is the college kid ready to line up alongside him.
“You know you’re getting old when you’ve played with the dad and the son,” Gionta said with a laugh during a recent interview after the U.S. squad was named.
Next month’s Olympics, however, are likely to be the swansong for the 39-year-old Stanley Cup winner, who retired from the NHL last year after 15 seasons with the New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres.
Gionta, who collected 289 goals and 299 assists in his NHL career, had offers to keep playing in the league this season but he decided against forcing his family to move from Buffalo for what would have been ultimately a utility role.
That did not mean his playing days were quite done, however, thanks actually to the NHL, which is refusing to send players to the Olympics for the first time in 24 years after a squabble with the International Olympic Committee.
Eager to find someone with both Olympic and NHL champion-level experience to anchor a roster lacking much of either, USA Hockey came knocking.
Gionta was the top scorer for the U.S. at the 2006 Turin Games. That team finished eighth, winning just one game and bowing out in the quarter-finals, so the NHL’s snub offered him a second chance to add an Olympic medal to his trophy cabinet.
“It’s one thing I haven’t been able to accomplish is an Olympic medal, an Olympic gold medal,” Gionta said.
“At this point, to be able to go out with that would be unbelievable.”
The U.S. team, however are long odds to win any medal.
While there are 15 players with NHL experience, Gionta alone accounts for roughly a third of the total games played between them and the majority of the squad now play professionally in Europe.
There are also three from the North American minor league system and four still in college.
The majority of the players were involved in last year’s Deutschland Cup in Germany, where they failed to win any of their three games.
Gionta, however, said the time spent together had been valuable for their Olympic preparations.
“We came together as a group,” Gionta said. “It gave us a nice taste of everyone getting used to each other.”
To keep in game shape, Gionta has been doing daily workouts with the Rochester Americans, the Sabres’ minor league affiliate about an hour’s drive from his house. Practicing but not playing can have some advantages, he said.
“Your body’s not getting worn down from the pounding of the games,” he said.
“So I feel fresh, especially considering where I’ve been the last few years.”
Clearly, though, Gionta faces a big challenge in helping head coach Tony Granato turn the team into a medal contender, with just a handful of practices in Pyeongchang before their first game against Slovenia on Feb. 14.
Gionta, however, said all the teams are in the same boat, scrambling for alternative talent without the NHL players.
“You’re pulling from the same talent pool. The NHL guys are taken out of that, and from there, you deal with it,” he said.
“But I like our chances for sure.”
(Editing by Greg Stutchbury)