It was a homecoming of sorts for Brian Gionta when he pulled a No. 12 Buffalo Sabres jersey over his head Wednesday afternoon at First Niagara Center.
He signed a three-year deal with the Sabres on Tuesday and is expected to provide leadership right away. He’ll also fill a role as both a skilled forward and a mentor to the younger players on the roster.
Gionta, 35, is from Greece, N.Y. and his wife is also from Rochester. With three young children, deciding to come back to Western New York to play for the Sabres ended up being the best move for him.
“This was my childhood team growing up and it’s a dream to play for them and put on the jersey. I can’t wait until September comes,” Gionta said. “We’re confident that we can come here and be a part of something big. That’s our expectation: to come here and field a winning team. I think we’re putting the pieces in place and we’re excited to be a part of that.”
While coming home for some players could add pressure, Gionta doesn’t think that will be the case here.
“I’ve been in the League a long time and the distraction of being close to home you might have had when you’re a younger player – I think at this stage of my career – that distraction won’t be there,” he said.
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Drafted by the New Jersey Devils in the third round of the 1998 NHL Draft, Gionta broke into the League at 23 during the 2001-02 season. He was surrounded by veterans like Scott Stevens, Jamie Langenbrunner and Martin Brodeur who left a very big impression on him as a young player.
He won the Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2002-03.
“[They] showed me how to be a professional and how to conduct yourself on and off the ice,” Gionta said. “You’re talking about a few Hall of Famers on that list and I’m very fortunate to have played with those guys and to have learned from those guys.”
Gionta scored 48 goals in 2005-06 and joined the Montreal Canadiens for the 2009-10 season.
He went on to serve as Montreal’s captain from 2010 until this past season.
“I try to lead by example and I go about my business and try to be a good influence on and off the ice,” he said. “By no means am I going to come here and work miracles, but I just try to be a presence and be somebody maybe for the young guys coming along, that being around and having some experience in the League, that I can be a sounding board.”
In addition to signing Gionta on Tuesday, Buffalo added forwards Matt Moulson and Cody McCormick and defensemen Josh Gorges and Andrej Meszaros.
“I think it says something that we were as busy as anybody,” general manager Tim Murray said. “That we were able to attract players of this caliber to want to come here whether it’s for different reasons like I said going into this. …I just think it was a great day for us.”
Murray said his focus in the next few days turns to signings for the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Rochester and catching up on all the other transactions from around the NHL.
He and coach Ted Nolan are also working on assembling a new staff of assistant coaches.