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Mike Harrington: Gionta beat the odds, earned proper Sabres sendoff

Brian Gionta sat down Monday at the front of the cramped media room in KeyBank Center and seemed surprised. He eyed the crowd of reporters, the bank of television cameras and many of his former teammates standing in the back of the room and said sheepishly that he didn't feel the end of his NHL career warranted any sort of formal announcement like this.

He could not have been more wrong.

Consistency and class have been Gionta's hallmarks since he started in the NHL way back in 2001. Playing 1,000-plus games, scoring 20 goals seven times, winning a Stanley Cup and serving as captain of two teams merited a proper sendoff.

Gionta was cool and composed during his 14-minute chat with reporters. He spoke with no notes, flawlessly handling opening remarks where he thanked his parents, brothers, wife and three children for allowing him to chase his dream.

He moved on to acknowledge longtime agent Steve Bartlett, then offered big thanks to former New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello for taking a chance on a 5-foot-7 Rochester kid out of Boston College with a third-round pick in the 1998 draft that was held in the same building. He gave more kudos, to the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins, as well as the Sabres ("my childhood team").

"I went into it hoping I could play one NHL game," Gionta said. "And from there it was play as long as you could, as long as you were having fun, enjoying the game and as long as your body would hold up. I would have never thought it lasted as long as it did but I'm super appreciative for the people along the way that supported me and gave me that chance."

At age 39, Gionta revealed he didn't pursue an NHL job for this season. Instead, he'll take what will initially be a small role in development work for the Sabres. It actually started last year in Rochester, where he skated with the Amerks in preparation for the Olympics, and continued in June, when he served as an on-ice coach at Sabres development camp.

"It was amazing how he interacted with our young players," said Sabres GM Jason Botterill. "You talk about work ethic, you talk about professionalism. That's what he brought to our players on the ice and off the ice. The role moving forward is a little undefined right now because he takes his role as a father very serious. He's had to sacrifice a lot being a player so, especially this first year out, he needs to enjoy being a father."

After 16 NHL seasons, ex-Sabres captain Brian Gionta calls it a career

Gionta is one of just 18 players to be a permanent captain for the Sabres in their 49-year history (several others wore the "C" when coaches opted to share the role or rotate it monthly). Admittedly, the Sabres didn't win many games during Gionta's three seasons here. In fact, after signing as a free agent in 2014, his first season as Buffalo's captain was the infamous 2014-15 tank campaign.

Nevertheless, Gionta left quite an impact on his former teammates.

"I was lucky enough to call him my captain for a couple of years here and it was a pleasure to play with him and learn from him," said defenseman Jake McCabe. "The way he carried himself every day was amazing.

"There's no coincidence that a guy who reached 1,000 games got there for a reason. You watched how he took care of himself on and off the ice. Each day he brought the professionalism."

Jack Eichel, who seems to be next in line to wear the "C" Gionta left behind following the 2016-17 season, said he will never forget the impact Gionta had during his formative years in the NHL.

"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 recalled. "That was cool. 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."

Jack Eichel on retirement of Brian Gionta: 'It's an unbelievable career'

Gionta scored 291 goals during his 1,026 NHL games. He added 32 more while playing 113 playoff games. His best season was a 48-goal, 89-point campaign with the Devils in 2005-06. His most memorable was winning the Cup with the Devils in 2003 as a 24-year-old.

[See Gionta's career stats here]

When Gionta was awarded the "C" in Montreal in 2010, it was big news as he became only the second American to earn that mantle.

"If there was anyone cut out for it, it would be 'Gio,' " said Sabres defenseman Nathan Beaulieu, who joined the Habs as a rookie in 2013. "He's so soft spoken, always would say the right things. Real professional. You don't really recognize he's an American guy. ... Wearing the 'C' is an honor anywhere but that storied franchise is pretty crazy and I thought he handled it very well."

The Sabres didn't have a captain last year in the wake of Gionta's departure and join a few other teams in that decision. Las Vegas went to the Stanley Cup final last year without one. Even Gionta admits the role is not as singular as it used to be.

"From the outside, a lot is put on the idea of a captain," he said. "But in today's game it's leadership by committee. It's about your core group of 7-10 guys that are leading in that room. Is there a figurehead at times that has to come and face the likes of you guys joyfully after games? That does happen, but it's a group that leads a room. It doesn't fall on a single guy."

While that may be true, the Sabres made sure to show one guy loads of respect on Monday. For a 5-7 player to persevere in the NHL that long, it was well deserved. When it was over, the room filled with applause.

"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 at Gio's size is remarkable. It's an unbelievable career and I'm just happy I was able to be a part of it."

"When he came out, smaller players basically weren't a part of the league," Botterill said. "It was just a select few. He had to be a part of overcoming the odds. He didn't just play. The fact he was so consistent, scored 48 goals one year, won a Stanley Cup, was captain of two franchises is just so impressive."

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