PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Who really knows what 39 is supposed to look like anymore, but whatever it is, I feel safe in saying Brian Gionta doesn’t look it, nary a gray dotting his close-cropped dark hair or full beard. The captain of the US men’s hockey squad insisted Monday he doesn’t feel it either.
That doesn’t mean he won’t hear about it.
It’s not enough that Gionta is the oldest American competitor in PyeongChang; the 16-year NHL veteran is also shepherding a team without active NHL players, a collection of newbies that aren’t just mathematically young enough to be his son, but includes one player whose dad Gionta did play with in the past.
Still, age has its perks.
“We are in a group of five in the village, three bedrooms, and I did get my own room. That is one of the upsides of being older,” said Gionta, legs dangling over the edge of the stage where his team’s news conference was held in advance of its first game Wednesday against Slovenia.
“I don’t think I snore, but I think they were just trying to take that out of it, the old guy. I think I look pretty young, you know? I enjoy being a veteran. I enjoy every minute of it. The young guys keep you youthful, keep you in it. By no means do I feel close to 40 and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
Gionta spent the 2016-17 NHL season in Buffalo, closest to his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. But without another contract for the current season and unwilling to uproot his family one more time to pursue other NHL offers, he jumped on the invite from USA Hockey to return to their program. A veteran of the US team that finished a disappointing eighth in Turin 12 years ago, Gionta was grateful for an opportunity to fill the only hole on a hockey résumé that includes an NCAA championship with Boston College and a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils. He trained and played with the Sabres’ AHL team to get ready for South Korea, and in the meantime, enjoyed being a full-time dad to his and his wife Harvest’s three children.
“Being a part of all their things, school events, hockey practices, soccer practices, violin recitals, it’s all something I haven’t been able to do over the last few years with traveling a lot professionally,” Gionta said. “I’ve really enjoyed it.”
There are three Gionta kids under the age of 12, so the family didn’t make the long trip to South Korea. The kids did gain an excuse to miss school, though.
“They’re pretty proud of dad and pretty excited to watch him,” Gionta said. “The last time I played in the Olympics my youngest was only 6 months old, so pretty cool to experience this with them. They get a pass from school, they get to watch at 7 a.m., when our first two games are on at home. They’ll get the morning off, watch the game, then go to school.”
Gionta is the one playing the role of teacher here, inspiring teammates such as Boston University star Jordan Greenway or Harvard standout Ryan Donato with his work ethic and attitude. It was Ryan’s dad, Ted, whom Gionta played with early in his career.
“Sure we make age jokes, he played with my dad a little bit so I hear some stories,” Donato said. “But at the end of the day he’s a great representative of [Team] USA and the NHL. More than what he says, you want to emulate the way he acts. The energy he brings to the rink, he’s always in a good mood, always wants to help others and be a great teammate.”
Curiosity about how these new teammates will come together has come out as skepticism in many corners of the hockey world, and with a mere four practices together since arriving at the Olympics to get ready for the first puck drop, the questions are not unfair. Yet as coach Tony Granato kept insisting Monday, this is the way teams are always put together for international tournaments, with video instructions sent out ahead of time, text chains ongoing among teammates, and roles well planned out by the time players convene on the ice.
“It’s a group of guys that is well deserving, they have great careers,” Gionta said, speaking of teammates who are playing in pro hockey leagues from Europe to Russia. “Whether you played a game in the NHL or not, for people, naysayers to knock on that, where these guys play, where we’re at, I love our team. I love our hunger. I wouldn’t say we have a chip on our shoulder, but we expect to come in here and compete for a medal.”