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Gionta, NHL free agent, prepared to walk away with no regrets

39-year-old forward does not have contract for this season

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / Columnist

If Brian Gionta has played his last NHL game, he'll hang up his skates without a regret.

Gionta will know that he and his family are richer for the athletic and life experience of his career, the forward having been a fine leader and shown great durability in a physically demanding game over 16 NHL seasons.

For the second consecutive offseason, the 39-year-old unrestricted free agent is without a contract. Last season he played for the United States at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, where he was captain, then returned to the NHL to play 20 games down the stretch with the Boston Bruins.

Some reasonably bold writing is on his hockey wall, he admits, and he suggests that perhaps it's time that his wife, Harvest, and their children -- Adam, 13; Leah, 10; and James, 6 -- had his undivided attention.

"I've still trained because that's the routine," Gionta said Wednesday from his summer home in Rochester, New York. "It's what I've done every summer for the last 17 years. I'm still training with the group of guys who are here. At this point, it's basically to hang around them and stay in shape. But I'm prepared [for retirement] unless something very out of the ordinary and significant came through.

"Last summer we had some offers on the table and we looked at significant ones. But at this stage of my career, I just didn't feel right moving the kids around, one year here, one year there."

Gionta played in one of the Bruins' 12 playoff games last season, Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round against the Tampa Bay Lightning, a series Boston lost in five games.

"It all just kind of fell into place for me last year," said Gionta, who played the previous three seasons for the Buffalo Sabres. "Coming into this year, same thing, I probably could have gotten a one-year deal. We went searching for it but at this point it's going to be really tough to move the kids. I haven't ruled it out completely but most likely I'll look at some non-playing hockey options."

That could include work at the grass-roots level with the Sabres, with whom he maintains a good relationship. Gionta, who has a home in Buffalo, worked the Sabres development camp in late June, digging deeper into the organization after having played with Rochester of the American Hockey League last fall to prepare for the Olympics.

Without an NHL training camp to attend last September, Gionta saw a lot more of his wife and children, something he's eager to do again this fall in Buffalo. Now, with Adam due to finish middle school and Leah set to complete elementary school, he sees the need to be there for his family more than ever.

A good many, from casual observers to seasoned scouts, believed that Gionta, 5-foot-7 and 178 pounds, had little chance of making the rugged NHL, much less surviving there. But he was drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the third round (No. 82) of the 1998 NHL Draft, then went on to help Boston College win the NCAA Division I championship in 2000-01, his senior season, as captain.

Gionta was on the Devils' Stanley Cup championship team in 2002-03, his second NHL season, and played seven seasons in New Jersey before signing with the Montreal Canadiens as an unrestricted free agent in 2009. He was Montreal's captain for the final four seasons of his five-year contract, then signed with the Sabres in 2014, captain of Buffalo for three seasons.

Playing with Rochester intrigued him about the idea of working with the team's prospects. If having a family might not, for now, mesh with a career in coaching, helping young players is appealing to him. Buffalo's development camp this summer brought that process along, and Gionta said the Sabres are allowing him to feel his way, "so we'll see where that goes."

"I had a really good time last year, being around the guys in the room in Rochester," he said. "I was kind of between being a coach and a player. Guys came to me for advice, I was there to help mentor them and be a part of that. It was a fun year, it opened my eyes to see where I wanted to be."

On Wednesday, enjoying a summer day with his family at an amusement park in Rochester, hockey wasn't atop Gionta's list of priorities. Climbing aboard the Jack Rabbit, a historic wood roller coaster, was more on his mind, and he laughed when asked whether he made the height requirement to ride it.

"I wear size 4 1/2 skates and we just bought Adam new skates, Size 4," he said. "He's Gionta size, we don't grow 'em big. I told him, 'Maybe next year, you'll be able to fit into mine'."

If Gionta's NHL career is indeed over, he will ride into his hockey sunset with peace of mind and a family to dote on. And he'll have an excellent body of work in his rear view, 595 points (291 goals, 304 assists) in 1,026 NHL regular-season games, with another 68 points (32 goals, 36 assists) in the playoffs and his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

"An NHL career is the best years of your life, for sure," he said. "The experiences that I've been able to have, that my family has been able to have because of hockey, are all special things. It's still a bit early to reflect on the past, but I wouldn't change anything that's happened. Any decision I've made over the years has all been what I've wanted and expected it to be.

"I feel completely content whether I play again or not. I've loved the game and loved being at the top level for a long time. I feel very fortunate that I was able to do that for so long, especially when a lot of people wouldn't have expected me to be here for even a game."

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