Tyler Ennis loved watching Brian Gionta growing up. ©2017, Dan Hickling, Olean Times Herald

Sabres captain Brian Gionta an inspiration to Tyler Ennis

BUFFALO – Sabres winger Tyler Ennis said undersized NHL players – a “brotherhood,” he called them – share “an unspoken bond.”

Small players, of course, have the odds stacked against them. Only they can truly understand what they endured to make the league.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, it was even tougher for them to crack the NHL. That’s why Ennis, who’s listed at 5-foot-9, grew up idolizing diminutive stars, including 5-foot-7 Sabres captain Brian Gionta, who will play his 1,000th NHL game tonight.

“Brian was definitely an inspiration for me,” Ennis said this morning inside KeyBank Center. “You want to talk about (Martin) St. Louis and (Daniel) Briere, but Gio was equally important inspiring me to be an NHL player.”

To Ennis, seeing Gionta thrive in the NHL “proved that you can do it.”

“He’s shorter than I am and he’s played 1,000 games,” Ennis said. “I got to look up at everyone I’m playing against, and Gio’s smaller than I am. He’s got an extremely big heart, he’s got a work ethic and he’s tenacious, and that’s everything you need to be a small guy. On top of that, he’s scored almost 50 goals (in a season).”

Naturally, becoming Gionta’s teammate has been special for Ennis.

“It’s been amazing, watching him prepare, watching him play,” he said. “He’s a great guy. He’s got a great family. … He’s a family man, a working guy that’s earned every game and every shift and every minute that he’s played in his 1,000-game career.”

The “brotherhood,” Ennis said, is proud of Gionta.

“We’re all excited for him and happy for him, and it feels like a win for all of us smaller guys to see a guy play 1,000 games,” he said.

The Sabres host the Florida Panthers tonight.

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