Count Jack Eichel among the hundreds of NHL players past and present who have felt major impact from playing alongside former Sabres captain Brian Gionta.
"He's somebody I grew up watching and all of a sudden I'm sitting a few stalls away from him my first years in the NHL," Eichel told The Buffalo News after practice Monday morning. "That was cool. It's an unbelievable career and I'm just happy I was able to be a part of it."
Gionta, who wore the 'C' for both the Sabres and Montreal Canadiens, announced his retirement from the NHL during a Monday press conference in KeyBank Center. The Rochester native said he is moving into an unspecified role on the development staff of the Sabres and Rochester Amerks that he termed a "small part" in the organization.
"He's been a great pro and it was great for me to learn from him my first few years," Eichel said. "You can never find something bad to say about him. I've never heard anybody say anything bad about him. It speaks to his character as a player, a person, a husband, a father. He's such a good guy. His work ethic and ability to overcome the challenges in his career, like people always telling him he was too small, he just continued to perform."
At just 5-foot-7, Gionta played 1,026 NHL games. He scored 291 goals and won a Stanley Cup with New Jersey in 2003. Gionta captained the Sabres for all three seasons after his arrival in 2014, collecting 40 goals and 103 points in that span.
"It goes to show there's really no boundaries and a guy like him can make the NHL," Eichel said. "It's great for younger players who are undersized. To play 1,000 games in the NHL at Gio's size is remarkable."