One of the joys for Brian Gionta has been watching the growing excitement of his three children as the Olympic Games get closer.
They got the kids USA Hockey jerseys for Christmas, although his youngest, 5-year-old James, is still adjusting to the fact that dad is the captain of Team USA and not the Buffalo Sabres.
"Our youngest is 5 and he still sees the Sabres on TV and says 'Daddy's team,' " Gionta said. "The other kids tell him, no, it's the U.S. now and he's like 'Go U.S.' It's been a lot of fun seeing them enjoy it."
Truth be told, Gionta is enjoying it himself. The Rochester native, who played in 1,006 NHL games, won a Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils, was the second American-born captain of the Montreal Canadiens and captain of the Sabres, has a new pep in his stride with Team USA.
It's a new challenge for the 39-year-old Gionta, the oldest member of the team that will represent the U.S. at the Pyeongchang Olympics.
But it's not his first Olympic rodeo.
Twelve years ago Gionta was part of the U.S. Olympic Team that finished eighth in the 2006 Turin Games, losing to Finland in the quarterfinals. That team was comprised of NHL stars, with Chris Chelios the team captain.
Now, Gionta is the captain of the team, the first since 1998 to not have current National Hockey League players. Yet the only difference Gionta sees is the available players from which USA Hockey could draw its roster.
In fact, the absence of NHL players may have given Team USA a bit of an advantage. A good portion of the Olympic roster was part of the U.S. National Team that competed in the four-team Deutschland Cup in Augsburg, Germany. While the days of the men's team being centralized for an extended period are pretty much extinguished, the competition in November helped Team USA learn each other's hockey styles and personalities, creating a baseline for the team when it convenes in Pyeongchang and open competition with a preliminary-round game against Slovenia on Feb. 14.
"The only thing that's really different is the player pool that you're drawing from," Gionta said. "Besides that, a lot of similarities. With the NHL set up, you fly over there, you have a small window to practice in and then you're right in the games. We've had the added benefit of being able to go over to the Deutschland Cup and be together for that week. A lot of guys that were there are on the (Olympic) team and have a good understanding of each other. I think that's a nice change from previous Olympics but I'd say it's only the player pool that's much different. Besides that, expectations are to go over there and compete for a medal.
"It's a highly skilled bunch of guys that will be in the Olympics. I know there's been some talk that not having the NHL guys in means you don't have your highest-skilled guys. I think that's a bad representation of the people that are going over there to compete in these games. There's a lot of great hockey players and I like the makeup of our team personally, but I think the competition is going to be extremely tough."
The makeup of the team that Gionta touts was the result of the work of Jim Johannson, the general manager of the U.S. men's national team and the assistant executive director of USA Hockey. Johannson, 53, died in his sleep on Jan. 21.
Earlier in January, Johannson was on a media conference call, explaining how he went about putting together this Olympic team without NHL players.
"Character came into this bigtime," Johannson had said. "I wanted this to look, feel and be USA Hockey."
What does USA Hockey look like? To Gionta, it's not a particular style but an expectation that evolved over the 18 years that Johannson worked at the organization.
"Somebody mentioned along the way that he started at USA Hockey the mentality was 'Let's go out there and not get embarrassed and try to compete,'" Gionta said. "Now, the expectation is to be the top country in the world. The expectation is to win. That's the vision that he is responsible for. He's been directly responsible for USA Hockey getting to that point where we have the depth of players and development to be one of the main hockey nations in the world."
And that expectation isn't a burden but a motivation as the U.S. tries to win its first medal since capturing the silver in 2010.
"I've known JJ for 18 years or so. He's been a big part of my USA hockey career," said Gionta, who has played for five U.S. teams at IIHF world championships, including the World Juniors (1998, 1999) and the World Championships (2000, 2001, 2005). "It's tough to deal with, but I think all the guys are on board with using that as a motivating factor in the sense that he picked this team and there was a lot of emotion and energy that he put into make this team. The way he built the team, a lot of guys are getting their dream come true because of JJ and they want to repay that and honor him with a great tournament."
While the team will be together for the first time on Feb. 10, Gionta is confident it can come together quickly. That indeed is the key to success at the Olympics, along with special teams and great goaltending.
And Gionta is ready for his role as Captain America.
"I think a lot of what I'll do is similar to what I've done before," Gionta said about approaching his role as captain. "I'm a guy that tries to lead by example and go out there and do whatever's asked of the team and hold guys accountable to that same standard. I think what's different is in the short-term you need to find ways to come together as a team quicker. You don't have the luxury of being together for nine months of the year. You have to accelerate that process in that first few days, that first week together so you're hitting the games and the main competition as a group.
"We want everyone pulling in the same direction, everybody comfortable with their role, everybody willing to battle for their teammate next to them. I think that's how teams succeed is you don't want to disappoint that guy that's sitting next to you. You just need to accelerate that process in a short tournament like this."