Gionta has become Canadiens’ Captain America

Brian Gionta’s hockey career began at home in Rochester, N.Y.,

was cultivated at Boston College, and evolved in the swamps of New

Jersey. It has now reached historical significance in Montreal –

hockey’s home office.

What Gionta lacks in height, he more than makes up for with

heart and talent. Not only has he turned into an NHL star, Gionta

has become just the second American and third non-Canadian to

captain the Montreal Canadiens.

Generously listed at 5-foot-7, the 31-year-old Gionta is the

Canadiens’ shortest player but he holds a position that might carry

the greatest stature in the NHL.

”It’s an honor no matter what, but for sure it’s a big honor to

be asked to be that in Montreal,” Gionta said. ”There were so

many guys before you. There is so much history in the organization.

To kind of be a part of that is a huge thing.”

From Maurice Richard to Jean Beliveau to Yvan Cournoyer, the

names of Canadiens captains roll off the tongue of hockey fans the

way those of Ruth, Gehrig and DiMaggio do in New York Yankees’

baseball lore.

The leading face of hockey’s most storied franchise was often a

player of French Canadian heritage. And if not a Quebecer, at least

someone who called Canada home.

That has changed through the years. American-born Chris Chelios

was the captain during the 1989-90 season and Finland’s Saku Koivu

for a long stretch, from 1999-09.

”It is significant because of the organization,” said New

Jersey Devils captain Jamie Langenbrunner, who also captained the

U.S. Olympic team. ”Knowing Gio and the kind of guy that he is and

the type of example that he sets, there are not many better guys to

pick.

”In today’s hockey, nationality really doesn’t matter. We’ve

had Russian captains. We’ve had Swedish captains. It really doesn’t

matter. It’s the type of player and the type of person that you

are.”

The job, for all 30 NHL captains, carries responsibilities. But

in Montreal the expectations are greater.

”Brian leads a lot by example, how he practices and how he

handles himself on ice as well as off the ice,” Canadiens coach

Jacques Martin said. ”It was fairly obvious to the organization

and to his teammates that he is our leader in our dressing room,

and that’s why he is wearing the ‘C.’

”You’re playing for an organization that has a lot of history,

has a lot of tradition, and it’s a hockey market. So there is some

extra pressure. I know that Brian is well equipped to handle

that.”

Some of the credit can be traced to Jerry York, the coach who

helped mold Gionta, starting in 1997 when he came to Boston

College.

Gionta had starred in juniors, totaling 156 goals and 151

assists in 129 games over three years for the Rochester Americans

and Niagara Scenic, which later became the Buffalo Jr. Sabres.

He didn’t slow down under York. Gionta scored at least 30 goals

in three of his four seasons at Boston College, including

back-to-back 33-goal campaigns in his final two years. Gionta

captained the team during his senior season of 2000-01 when the

Eagles captured the NCAA championship – their first since 1949 –

and led the nation in goals.

”He, without any question, is the top player I’ve coached at

Boston College,” said York, who has been coaching at his alma

mater since 1994 and has won three national titles there. ”A

difference maker in every game over four years. But his leadership

skills, coupled with that, made him an icon here. Whenever we talk

about athletes, it’s Doug Flutie, it’s Brian Gionta. It’s those

type of guys.

”We’re going to have a statue of him pretty soon outside for

him. We have a Doug Flutie statue and now it’s going to be Brian

Gionta statue,” York added with a smile.

It’s not so far-fetched. The 5-foot-10 former quarterback also

compensated for a lack of height with a championship drive as big

as anyone’s.

”This rises above and beyond what language he speaks, what

hometown he’s from,” York said of Gionta. ”He’s a captain of the

ship and he’s certainly well deserving.”

Gionta was drafted 82nd in 1998 by New Jersey and made it to the

Devils in his first season after college. He spent 37 games with

Albany of the AHL that season, but that was the extent of his minor

league experience, not counting the 15 games he played for Albany

in the 2004-05 season during the NHL lockout.

Gionta set the Devils’ record with 48 goals in the 2005-06

season, and finished with 152 goals and 160 assists in 473 games

over seven seasons with New Jersey. He had 28 goals and 46 points

in his first season with Montreal and has two goals and two assists

in 14 games since becoming the Canadiens’ captain.

”He is still the same quiet, boring guy as ever. He’s just

Brian,” said Scott Gomez, Gionta’s longtime friend and teammate

with the Devils and Canadiens. ”Since Day One since we met when we

were 14 years old, he has not changed. He has been the same guy. He

is a dear friend and it’s great to see.”

Gomez embodies the change in hockey culture as much as anyone.

He is of Colombian and Mexican heritage and was the first native

Alaskan to play in the NHL.

After a short stint with the New York Rangers, Gomez reunited

with Gionta in Montreal last season. He believes Gionta has the

perfect makeup to lead this group of Canadiens.

York sees it, too.

”It’s Derek Jeter with the Yankees,” he said. ”There’s

something about those particular players that besides being

All-Stars, and I’m sure Brian’s headed for the Hall of Fame, but he

just had that quality about him that he personified

leadership.”

Montreal went without a captain last season after Koivu left for

the Anaheim Ducks. Over the past year, Gionta emerged as the

logical successor.

”This locker room is pretty diverse,” Gomez said. ”We all

love it in Montreal. We all love the French people. The city has

kind of gotten a feel for the team. We’re all proud to be Montreal

Canadiens. That he’s the captain – it doesn’t matter where you’re

from.”

Gionta is in the second season of a five-year, $25 million

contract that brought him to the Canadiens in the summer of 2009,

and plans to make the most of it. He and his family take weekly

tutoring sessions to learn French and ease their assimilation.

”I don’t think it’s important in the role of being the captain.

It’s something since we came there that we’ve wanted to embrace the

culture,” Gionta said. ”That’s the whole part of the experience.

It’s a great thing in life to be exposed to different cultures.

We’ve been fortunate to have that experience. So we want to embrace

it.”

He already won points in Montreal when he introduced his

teammates in French before the team’s home opener. Koivu was often

criticized for not learning to speak the language. The Canadiens

haven’t had a French-speaking captain since Vincent Damphousse’s

tenure ended in 1999 and Koivu took over.

”People will love you just for trying,” said Devils goalie and

Montreal native Martin Brodeur, Gionta’s former teammate. ”You

don’t need much. I think it’s important. People expect somebody to

try. You’re going into their city that is mostly French and people

are proud of it.

”It has been harder for the Canadiens to go out and sign French

talent to be their spokesperson as captain. There was a Finnish guy

and now they’re going with an American. Hockey is changing. Usually

you have tons of French guys on that team, but now there’s only a

few of them.”

Gionta has left a bit of a legacy in New Jersey, too. His

younger brother, Stephen, has earned a shot with the Devils. He was

called up last week and made his NHL debut at home on Friday

against the rival New York Rangers. He skated out in the familiar

No. 14 that Brian used to wear.

Now the elder Gionta has the chance to affect the most famous of

hockey franchises in a way few from his background have.

Brodeur has taken notice. He is well-versed in Canadiens

history, growing up in Montreal rooting for his idol Patrick Roy

and watching his father, who was the team’s longtime

photographer.

”It’s a great honor for him, well-deserved,” Brodeur said.

”People embrace somebody that has the work ethic that Gio has and

that Koivu had. It’s something that translates a lot in the

captaincy now because everybody is on the same page the way they

act.”

AP Sports Writer Jimmy Golen in Boston contributed to this

report.