His teammates call him “Gio.” They look up to him for many reasons, but likely the first and foremost reason every player in a Sabres uniform respects Brian Gionta is because of how much he still loves the game and shows it with his effort on the ice.
Sure there may be shifts where players are faster, quicker to the puck from a stand still. But there are ways the 37-year-old captain makes up for the relentless pursuit of Father Time on our bodies. (By the way, find me a way to 37 again please and I would love to be labeled “the older guy.”)
People have rightly attached the phrase “hockey sense” to the likes of Sam Reinhart and Jack Eichel. Those two young players have certainly shown they have a knack for that quality, both on and off the ice.
Well for my money, as I have watched the Sabres captain play throughout the season, it is because of his feel for the game that he has, in my mind, been a very valuable part of what is being built here in Buffalo.
Once Brian was set by coach Dan Bylsma alongside the likes of Marcus Foligno and Johan Larsson, the two younger players' games have grown and they have become more consistent in their play.
Now, both Foligno and Larsson deserve a lot of credit for their improved play in the last quarter of the season, but make no mistake, the 915 regular-season games played alongside them in the form Gionta has been a key factor in the development of those two players.
That in a nutshell is why Brian Gionta has been a valuable piece of their Sabres puzzle being put together by GM Tim Murray.
As you watch the Sabres wind down this season, keep an eye at the rink on No. 12 and where he positions himself, with and without the puck. It’s clear to my eyes that Brian has held onto every lesson learned playing in New Jersey when it comes to sticking with a plan or structure to the game in order to stay in the game.
When RJ is calling games back at First Niagara Center, I take that opportunity to watch from ice level, taking stock of every players' effort and positioning on the attack and while working in their own zone.
Brian is still in the NHL today because he knows where to be. His goals come in the area from the top of the face off circles to down at the side of the net: Hockey’s “red zone.”
I watch shift after shift as Brian crashes and bangs with men who seem like giants in stature compared to his 5-foot-7 frame storming down into the corners. Brian comes to work with a purpose and when the time comes, he gets thundered to the ice, he pops right back and storms back to deliver more.
There is a hockey code for many aspects of the game, both on and off the ice. Brian holds players and others around the team accountable and recognizes people when they do “the right thing” or the “hockey way.” Some feel this code is no longer around the game as much as it used to be and I agree. I have witnessed the “me first” attitude permeate its way into the old school way of respecting the hockey journey we are all lucky to be a part of.
Guys like Brian are vital in passing on the proper ethics of this wonderful game.
At the end of last season, I approached Brian and thanked him for being kind to someone I had introduced him to one day while at the rink. His response to me was why this guy matters to this organization now and going forward. Brian said, “Of course Dan, we are all family here.”
Imagine how the new guy in Buffalo felt when the captain said that to me of my family. That’s a guy I want to have around my young up-and-coming stars as long as he can and wants to be.