Captain Gionta earned his promotion
BROSSARD, Quebec — His short stature has always been an issue.
It’s not because he brings it up; it’s frequently been brought up for him. But Brian Gionta’s talent has always outdistanced his 5-foot-7-inch frame, whether he was playing junior hockey, college hockey, or in the National Hockey League.
One person who had a front-row seat for Gionta’s development is Boston College coach Jerry York. York watched Gionta blossom from a top prospect to a leader and game-changer who is now the captain of the Montreal Canadiens.
“When I first saw him play in juniors, I thought, ‘He’s going to have a terrific college career at BC,’ ’’ said York. “That was the very first shift I watched him. I thought, ‘This was a must-get for our program.’
“As freshman year went to sophomore year, I said, ‘Gee, he’s getting so much better every day I’ve watched him, he certainly has a pro career ahead of him.’ Lou Lamoriello [the Devils president/general manager who drafted Gionta in 1998] saw the same things I saw.’’
The Bruins, as they head into tonight’s Game 4 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, have seen plenty of Gionta’s ability. The 32-year-old had both goals in Montreal’s 2-0 win in the series opener. He is a factor every shift because of his quickness and tenacity.
“When you look at him, he’s willing to go into those areas and battle and take a hit and give a hit back,’’ said Montreal defenseman Hal Gill. “A guy like that, I think it’s inspirational for the team.
“Obviously, he can score goals, he can do all the other things that everyone looks at and says, ‘He’s a great player because he does all that.’ But it’s the little things — blocking shots, taking hits, battling in front of the net and digging for rebounds. For a smaller guy, you have to respect that. That’s why he’s our captain.’’
After four years at BC (the last of which led to an NCAA championship in 2001) and seven in the Devils organization (he won a Stanley Cup in 2003), Gionta signed a five-year, $25 million contract with Montreal on July 1, 2009.
“I wanted to come to a team that could compete year in and year out,’’ said Gionta. “Obviously, the history with the Montreal Canadiens, they want to win and they’re serious about winning. The moves that they’ve made, and have made since, are everything to get a winner here.’’
York surmised that Gionta has been a leader “since the first grade.’’
“He attracts people,’’ said York. “He’s just that type of personality. That 5-foot-7-inch body that he had, he had a 6-foot personality.
“Some short people are intimidated by a large group of big guys, and Brian has always been in a dressing room full of big guys. I don’t know how to describe it; his stature, as far as height and weight, he doesn’t project it. He projects [bigger].
“My first impression was that he had a firm handshake and [he’d] look you straight in the eye and say, ‘You have my undivided attention.’ There was nothing wishy-washy about him. Once the game starts, he’s engaged. His shift is of paramount importance to him.’’
Also important to Gionta is embracing his new home. He and his wife, Harvest, take French lessons and he envisions his son, Adam, and daughter, Leah, growing up bilingual.
“He’s making every effort to immerse himself into the culture,’’ said York. “He has the respect of all the people there because he’s making a major effort to envelop that whole culture of Quebec.’’
“It’s the culture that’s here, and you want to be a part of it as much as you can,’’ said Gionta. “Not too many people can say that their kids might be bilingual.’’
He’s still working on his French, and when he has a question, he talks to his Francophone teammates. Of course, that means opening himself up to ridicule. Asked if he gets teased, Gionta said, “For sure, but we make fun of their English, too, so it’s all right.’’
Gionta said he owes York a debt of gratitude because his time at BC helped lead him through his NHL career.
“It’s all about preparation,’’ he said. “You come in and you’re 17, 18 years old and you’re still a kid. You have a lot to learn and they kind of prepare you for how to spend your time, how to prepare for the next game and the best practice. You just learn how to go about your business being a professional.’’
He keeps in touch with the Eagles staff and even addressed the team when he was in town earlier this year.
“He was outstanding,’’ said York. “He talked about being a leader and playing in the NHL. He’s still a really influential person in all our lives.’’
Gionta said his seasons with BC and the Devils taught him how much effort it takes to win.
“One of the big things was adversity,’’ he said. “If you looked at our class [at BC], before we won it, we’d been to the finals twice and lost and we’d been to the semifinals and lost.
“Being able to face that adversity and being able to keep a positive outlook and have confidence in the team that we had, knowing that we could win a championship, things like that are what you gain there.’’
Gionta said there is a lot of confidence and commitment in the Canadiens dressing room.
“Right now, it’s a matter of being the team that comes out at the end,’’ he said. “It’s a hard process in the playoffs, it’s hard to do. There are a lot of good teams that you have to play against. It’s just trying to stay as present as you can.’’
And he considers it a blessing, not a burden, to be the Habs’ first sole American-born captain (Chris Chelios was cocaptain with Guy Carbonneau).
“Any time you’re a captain in the National Hockey League, it’s special,’’ said Gionta. “You look at the history and the captains who have come before you. I’m honored and humbled.’’
Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.