BUFFALO – Brian Gionta’s ties to Western New York run deep. The winger grew up in suburban Rochester rooting for the Sabres, his new team. Before attending Boston College, he played junior hockey with the Niagara Scenic. He still lives in Greece, his lifelong home.
Playing here earlier in his career would’ve been difficult, Gionta said Wednesday during an introductory news conference inside the First Niagara Center.
But right now, Gionta’s a 35-year-old whose goal production has dropped in recent seasons. Leadership, something the Sabres sorely needed, is his greatest asset. He’s a veteran entering a new phase.
Gionta can handle playing for the Sabres. The timing’s almost perfect.
“The biggest thing is I’m at the point in my career now you’re not trying to appease every family and friend that’s out there,” said Gionta, who signed a three-year, $12.75 million contract shortly after free agency opened Tuesday. “I’ve been in the league a long time. The distraction of being close to home that maybe you would’ve had when you were a younger player, I think at this stage of my career that distraction won’t be there.”
This stage will be much different. He just left the Montreal Canadiens, a storied franchise he captained four years, for the rebuilding Sabres, the NHL’s worst team last season. The Sabres have a youthful roster.
“I’m excited about being part of that turnaround,” Gionta said.
He even mentioned the Stanley Cup on Wednesday. First, he said, the Sabres must concentrate on making the playoffs, a milestone some believe could be reached sooner than expected after general manager Tim Murray acquired five new players Tuesday.
Gionta, a Cup winner with the 2002-03 New Jersey Devils, liked the moves.
“I think the excitement level has just gotten a lot bigger,” he said. “You can see it (in) the last day and a half. Guys are excited. Guys want to be here. Guys want to play for the Sabres, and that’s the first step.”
He called Tuesday a “real good day for us.”
“We like the direction Mr. Murray’s going with the team and, obviously, (owner Terry) Pegula,” Gionta said. “We’re confident that we can come here and be a part of something big. … I think we’re putting the pieces in place.
“Obviously, we’re excited to be closer to home. We have a lot of ties to Western New York, a lot of family and friends in the area. This was my childhood team growing up. It’s a dream to play for them and to put on the jersey.”
Gionta cautioned he’s not “going to come here and work miracles.”
“I just try to be a presence and be somebody maybe for the young guys coming along with being around and having some experience in the league, that they can be a sounding board,” he said.
Gionta wanted to return to Montreal. His agents were still negotiating Tuesday morning.
“We loved our time and we appreciate our time and experience in Montreal,” he said. “Right up to the end, 11 o’clock or so, we were still in negotiations with them. That’s kind of when things fell apart from there and the talks broke off. But Buffalo had showed interest and really intrigued us. We were really excited about the prospect of coming here. So when things broke off, our attention turned.”
Shortly before Gionta signed, the Sabres sent a 2016 second-round pick to Montreal for defenseman Josh Gorges, his close friend.
“I think he’s going to be a great fit for here,” Gionta said. “He’s a heart-and-soul guy who leaves his heart out on the ice every day, does anything for the team. I think he’s going to be a great example for a lot of young guys here.”