- Brian Gionta was in dad mode. Then Team USA called. Now he’s team captain in his first Olympics since 2006.
Brian Gionta was back. Back at the PTA meetings, the Halloween parade, the winter concert—all the school events for his three children that he had missed. Ordinary calendar items to many parents were treasured by someone returning from 14-plus seasons in the NHL, most recently with his hometown Buffalo Sabres. He coached his daughter’s soccer team, stood behind the bench at his sons’ hockey games and skated on the ice for practices. “Being in that lifestyle,” he says. Dad mode, some might call it.
Then Team USA dialed.
Brian Gionta is back. Now 38, almost twice the age of his youngest teammate, the fearless 5’7” winger was recently named captain for an American men's hockey roster that blends college students, minor leaguers and European-based pros, almost a dozen years after last representing the United States at the Winter Olympics. So each morning, he dropped his kids off at school, drove 15 minutes to a nearby arena where he used to play knee hockey in the hallways when he was their age, and trained with the AHL’s Rochester Americans to prepare for PyeongChang.
Spurning contract offers to stay near his family, Gionta will lead the United States into a wide-open field absent of NHL talent. (Thanks a lot, IOC.) A few weeks ago, he spoke with SI.com about wearing the C for USA, communicating with a roster spread around the globe, advising young teammates on the Olympic experience, and memories from his last Winter Games—an eighth-place finish in Turin, Italy, where Gionta had four goals.
SI: How many people are calling you Captain America now?
BG: [laughs] Yeah there’s been a handful of those texts when the Jan. 1 announcement came. A bunch of those came across, especially because I played up in Montreal. A lot of friends in Montreal texted me that kind of stuff. Captain America was the biggest one. They were pumped. Some said they couldn’t root for me, but congratulations. Stuff like that. Go, Canada, go.
SI: Who was the most out-of-the-blue person you heard from?
BG: One of my kids’ first-grade teachers in Montreal. My son’s first-grade teacher. He’s in seventh-grade now. It’s been a few years. Just congrats.
SI: Did you ever think you’d make it back here after 2006?
BG: No. The way things were going with the NHL involved, at that point in my career, I didn’t think it was a possibility.
SI: So how does this happen?
BG: When things went down at the end of September, I had a couple opportunities to play in the NHL and it just didn’t work family-wise for me. USA Hockey approached me with the possibility of trying to make it work. Had to make some things to stay in shape come about, but with those things, we had a great year and have been able to make it happen.
SI: Wind it back even further. Right after the season ends, how do you leave things with Buffalo? What are you thinking entering the summer?
BG: The approach was to re-sign with them, for sure. That was the outlook. All indications pointed to that. Then there was a management change and a coaching change, so they had to reassess things. When they made the decision not to re-sign me, I was looking at other opportunities in the NHL. Then this came about after that.
SI: Did that hurt, hearing that new management didn’t want you back?
BG: For sure. It’s a place you have a lot of great friends on the team, you’ve been here a few years, and that’s where you thought you were going to be. At first, it does. But you move on fairly quickly. In this business, you get used to it.
SI: So July 1 comes and goes. Did you have interest?
BG: Yeah, right away. A few teams reached out. We took a lot of time to think about it. It was definitely not a rash decision. We checked out a lot of facets within a certain city, and at the end of the day it just didn’t work family-wise.
SI: Was that the big determining factor?
BG: At the stage I’m at, it was tough to move my kids around. That was the biggest factor.
SI: The stage you’re at?
BG: At the end of my career, you’re not getting more than a one-year deal. Where I was in my career, that’s why. It was mostly a decision with not wanting to continue to move my kids around.
SI: How is Coach Gionta behind the bench?
BG: [laughs] I don't know. Coach Gionta is pretty positive and likes to have fun. I’m not the head coach, so the assistant role suits me well. I can have fun and teach them at the same time. I don’t have to be the bad guy. I can be the good guy on the bench.
SI: So how do you get from there to Team USA?
BG: It never stopped. I continued my summer training, skating, and carried that right through to training camp time. Then started practicing with the Rochester Amerks, about an hour’s drive, so I’ve been practicing with them all season long.
SI: When does your focus narrow to PyeongChang?
BG: Going over to Germany for the Deutschland Cup with the USA team, that started really bringing things into focus. Then obviously the Jan. 1 announcement really puts something solid into it. So now it’s like, okay, you’re on the team, this is what we’ve got to do, this is how we’ve got to move forward.
SI: So they didn’t say, “If you want in, you’re in?”
BG: No, until the announcement I didn’t ask them specifically. We never had a conversation before it was set. It was more, hey, we think we can make this happen and move forward together.
SI: What has your training regimen looked like, absent of playing regular games?
BG: It’s basically been skating five days a week and lifting, pretty much the same. It’s like the schedule I held during the last lockout, where we started playing roughly mid-January. But before it was just a handful of guys skating together, not a full team. It’s nice to have practice time. You get the 5-on-5 play, power play, penalty kill time. Everything but real game action.
SI: How’d you find out you’d been named captain?
SI: Where were you?
BG: I was at home, waiting to pick up my kids from school. Just got back from practice. They phoned.
SI: What was your reaction?
BG: It’s weird. It’s a sense of pride, you’re very honored by it, but you’re caught off guard by it as well.
SI: Had you thought about that before?
BG: Not at all. It was hey, I want to make this team, I want to go out there and play in the Olympics. When they named me captain in Germany, it was pretty cool. But you don’t think about it at all.
SI: What do the rest of your teammates, who are going for the first time, have to learn beforehand?
BG: It’s getting their families set, getting their plans set, getting those types of logistics out of the way so they don’t become a distraction. It’s things like that, making sure that all those plans are out of the way and they don’t have to worry about those things.
SI: What about on the flip side—what do they have to look forward to?
BG: It’s the whole aura of the Olympics. You’re in the Olympic Village, you’re going to other events, it’s a dream come true. I think everybody dreams of participating in the Olympics at some point. Everything shuts down for those three weeks and everyone’s tuning into them. That stage is an unreal stage to be a part of.
SI: Do you remember how old you were when you first heard about the Miracle on Ice?
BG: Probably around 12 or so. When you started getting more serious in hockey and stuff like that.
SI: Was that the dream?
BG: Absolutely. Especially USA Hockey, when you start going to all the camps and stuff like that, that was the team to emulate. That was the ultimate underdog story, so everything was built around that ‘80 team.
SI: What still sticks with you about 2006?
BG: To be honest, disappointment. Disappointment in our finish. Great experience, loved every minute of it, disappointing in the finish.
SI: Why do you think things went how they did?
BG: Tough to say. It’s a tough tournament. You have to be peaking for that two-week period and you have to be the best team for that period. You may have the best team but not play the best in that time frame. A lot of things have to align. You have to make sure you’re focused for that amount of time.
SI: USA Hockey was in a transition period at that time.
BG: Yeah, right after that was when they transitioned to the newer generation, for sure.
SI: Where are we at now?
BG: I think it’s unreal. The depth that we have now at USA Hockey is awesome. You look at the world juniors, and the amount of U.S. kids who are getting drafted, that’s how you really see the state of USA Hockey.
SI: How would you have felt if NHL players weren’t allowed to go in 2006?
BG: It’s tough. Every NHLer wants to be in this situation. They want to be playing for their country and the Olympics. But that’s the business side of being in the NHL. I had to deal with it in college when they went to the NHL, then on the flip side, being able to participate in it as an NHLer was awesome.
SI: What lessons can you draw upon from your first time?
BG: You try to learn from every experience. A lot of that will be using the youthful energy that guys have, their first taste of it, being able to channel it and not get overwhelmed by the enormity of the event.
SI: Where does that enormity come from?
BG: The games, the whole process of the Olympics. You fly in, you have the Opening Ceremonies, you stay in the Olympic village, you’re around other athletes, you’re around other events. You’re always in it, whether you have a game day or not.
SI: Did you see other events?
BG: Mostly the other ice events, because you don’t have times to get into the mountains. There’s two separate venues.
SI: Do you have a favorite Olympic story? A moment that still resonates?
BG: That first time you’re walking onto the ice. That’s what you remember most about it, the anticipation leading up to that first game.
SI: Pitch me on this U.S. roster. Why can you win?
BG: It’s a bunch of guys that have been overlooked for parts of their careers. They’re a hungry bunch that wants to prove that they’re capable and deserving of this opportunity. Probably 75 percent have had NHL experience, and at some point been looked over or passed over. They’re out to prove something.
SI: Does that make you underdogs?
BG: Not underdogs. I don't think you can get a true taste of where rosters are at because of the difference in player pool this year. But that’s the mentality, I think, our team has.
SI: What has more pressure, captaining the Canadiens or Team USA?
BG: [laughs] They’re much different. The Habs was over the course of a season and a few years. USA is a short thing, but maybe more people tuning in.
SI: You’re probably the only recognizable name to the average fan.
BG: You use your experiences in the past. The spotlight in Montreal, the playoff games, all that comes into play.
SI: So what’s the schedule between now and when you leave?
BG: We’ve got just over a month before we fly over there, then we’ll have four or five practices, and then right into game time.
SI: But you’re not getting together before then?
SI: How do you stay in touch?
BG: We have a group chat that there’s constant back and forth on, just razzing guys to logistics of things, trying to figure things out. It’s a wide range on there. Then the communication from the coaches, video and stuff. We have a portal set up that we can log into and catch video, be prepared ahead of time before we get there.
SI: Who’s the most flagrant emoji user in the group text?
BG: I’d say [defenseman] Matt Gilroy.
SI: That’s a very 2018 way of team-bonding.
BG: We never had that technology back in the day. It’s awesome to have it.
SI: Is that daunting, not really having time together before the tournament?
BG: Not really. It’s much the same as when the NHL players are involved. They’re all with their own teams, then you fly over, get together, and play the games. It’s pretty similar.
SI: Have you thought about joining an NHL team after the Olympics?
BG: The possibility is there. We’ll see what opportunities are available. I’m at peace either way. If I go play, I’d love that. If not, I’m completely content with that as well.
SI: Gold medal’s not a bad way to go out.
BG: Not at all.