ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Former Sabre Brian Gionta is going to the Winter Olympics this week.
The Rochester native is staying in hockey shape with the Amerks. On Friday he played his first AHL game in more than a decade, and scored a goal.
With over 1,000 NHL games to his credit, Gionta was looking for work last fall. After three seasons with the Sabres, he wasn't offered a new contract. The 39 year-old free agent did have offers to play elsewhere, but wasn't keen to relocate his family. That's when USA hockey came calling.
"The approached me with the idea that if I wasn't playing that they would be interested in pursuing this opportunity," Gionta said. "Once the decision was made, we kind of got on board and tried to find ways to make it work."
After discussions with Sabres G.M. Jason Botterill and assistant Randy Sexton, Gionta was allowed to begin his preparations while practicing with the Amerks.
"It's been great," Gionta said. "It's allowed me to stay home and have that family time and it's also allowed me to come here and have that group dynamic that when you're done playing, you don't have. Being in that room and around the guys, it's been a great year. It's a great bunch of guys in that locker room and without their acceptance, it would have made it tough, but they've all been great with it."
The Olympic experience, nothing new for Gionta as he competed back in 2006, but his group of fellow NHL players finished without a medal.
"It definitely was a disappointment," Gionta said. "My goal is to win a gold medal and medal if you can't do that, so that's the expectation going over. Hopefully the other guys feel the same way."
Since NHL players won't compete in these games, Team USA is made up mostly of Americans playing professionally overseas.
"The player pool you're drawing from is still talented guys," Gionta said. "Guys that have spent time in the NHL. They're all great hockey players, but I think it's a wide open tournament. No one is really a clear cut favorite so going over there I think everyone has a chance."
One thing Gionta is looking forward to next week is a chance to take part in the Opening Ceremonies for the first time.
"It's hard to put into words," Gionta said. "It sends chills down your back just talking about it. I've been fortunate to do it at a lot of levels, represent my country. At the Olympic level, it's even more special. The aura around the games and when you're walking down the tunnel and you're putting the jersey on — there's nothing more special. You're knowing the whole country is pulling for you and rooting for you. World Championships and stuff like that, not everyone is tuned in. The Olympics, the whole world is tuned in."
Now Gionta has his sights solely on getting his first ever medal for Team USA.
Next up in our countdown to South Korea, team USA goalie David Leggio is getting ready for his first appearance at the Olympics.