Steve Bartlett, like many Rochester hockey people, was looking forward to the game. Two kids with a real shot to make the NHL were about to take the ice.
On the other team was Brian Gionta. Talented player, people said, but too small to go anywhere.
After two periods, the team with the prospects was up, 5-1.
“Third period came, and Brian just completely took control of that game,” Bartlett recalled Sunday. “They ended up winning, 6-5. It was one of the most amazing performances I’d seen against a team that had the so-called big horses.
“I came out of there thinking, ‘I don’t care what anybody says. This guy is going to be in the National Hockey League.’”
It’s been 23 years since that youth game. Gionta not only made the National Hockey League, he’s still playing. The 38-year-old who’s always been too small will hit a giant milestone Monday.
Gionta will skate in his 1,000th game when the Sabres host the Florida Panthers. After a pregame ceremony in KeyBank Center, Buffalo’s captain will become the 312th player and 43rd American to reach the magic number.
“Obviously, it’s a pretty cool milestone to have reached,” Gionta said in HarborCenter. “I’m fortunate that some people believed in me back in the day.”
Bartlett, Gionta’s longtime agent, is on that list of believers. So is Lou Lamoriello, the general manager who drafted him in New Jersey. Not many others can make that claim.
Skaters who are 5-foot-7 simply didn’t succeed in the hockey world during the early 2000s.
“He’s come up and beat the odds in so many ways,” Bartlett said by phone. “He’s gone from somebody they said couldn’t play to someone that everyone admires in not only what he’s accomplished but how he’s done it. He’s stayed so grounded and appreciates every day the success that he’s had.
“He’s never been a guy that’s taken it for granted.”
Coaches and teammates have admired Gionta’s skills, determination, work ethic and leadership throughout his 15-year career. But the word that accompanies him most is respect.
“He treats other people with respect, and in turn he gains a lot of respect from everyone else around him,” said Sabres defenseman Josh Gorges, a close friend and longtime teammate. “You just watch how he prepares, how he commits to excellence, the mental side of the game, the physical side of the game. I’m sure everyone told him from the time he was 10 years old, ‘You’re too small to play hockey. You’re too small. You’ll never make it. You’ll never make it.’ Not only did he make it, he’s succeeded beyond expectations.
“If you can’t look up to somebody like that, you’ve got to give your head a shake.”
Gionta’s commitment to fitness and his ability to reinvent himself are keys to the longevity. He’s still a chiseled 178 pounds, which allows him to handle his forechecking and defensive assignments.
“It’s finding a role on each team that you’re on,” he said. “It’s gone from being a checking-line forward when I first came in to being looked at as a scoring guy, a go-to guy, and then it comes back around to maybe not being relied upon to score as many goals but be there as a good teammate, a good penalty-killer, as a good checking-line guy.”
During his three seasons with Buffalo, Gionta has been at his best as a third-line checker. But he still shows the offensive skills that made him a 48-goal scorer in 2005-06. He’s sixth on the Sabres in goals (14) and seventh in points (32).
Gionta has reached double digits in goals during 13 of his 15 seasons. He was limited to 33 and 31 games the only times he didn’t.
“I remember the year in Jersey when he scored 48,” Sabres right wing Kyle Okposo said. “If you score 48 goals in this league in one year, you’re a damn good player. That’s no small feat.
“To play for as long as he has, as consistently as he has, that says a lot.”
Gionta has 288 goals, 297 assists and 595 points during his 999 games. He’s added 32 goals, 36 assists and 68 points in 112 playoff games, which includes a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2003. The third-round pick in 1998 is ninth in his draft class in points and 12th in games played.
But it’s not numbers that define the Rochester native.
“He’s a class act, a guy that I think we all look up to,” Sabres center Ryan O’Reilly said. “He’s won a Cup. It’s the way he takes cares of himself, the little things he says. It’s inspirational watching him.
“Every night you know what you’re getting from him. You know he’s going to work. You know he’s going to do the little plays, win that battle. Especially for his size, too, what he’s done, that’s not easy.”
As Gionta reaches the milestone, he fondly remembers his debut Dec. 30, 2001, in Edmonton (“I couldn’t believe the pace of play, how fast the game was, how fast things happen out there”) and his first goal four days later (“Against Nashville, Tomas Vokoun. Longtime friend, longtime teammate, longtime linemate Scott Gomez set me up for it”).
He also remembers his parents allowing him to play for youth teams in Buffalo and Syracuse despite the wintry drives. He remembers Lamoriello believing in him and giving him a shot. He remembers the good times as captain in hockey-crazy Montreal, and he feels pride in being the captain in Buffalo after cheering for the Sabres as a kid.
He also remembers watching the Canadiens honor Hal Gill for playing his 1,000th game in 2011.
“I was great buddies with him, and at the time I thought, ‘Holy crap, that guy’s old,’” Gionta said. “Now it’s coming full circle back on me now. You go from being the young guy to all of a sudden being the old guy on the team. It’s a quick transition between those two.
“I’ve just enjoyed every day coming to the rink and being able to do something I love to do. I still love the game. I still have fun coming to the rink, so hopefully it can continue on.”
Gionta has made it clear this won’t be his final season despite an expiring contract. There’s no telling how many games he’ll play, but there will be a celebration for No. 1,000.
“It’s a special night for him,” O’Reilly said, “but he’s a special guy.”