When Penny Gionta first introduced her kids to skating, she was hoping a winter extra-curricular activity would enrich their lives while at the same time keep them away from the television.
She never imagined her middle son, Brian, would take such a liking to hockey. But he was captivated by the game. There was never enough time to skate, never enough time to dart around the ice with a stick and puck.
And never any way to see over the boards.
Through Mites, Squirts and even to Peewees, the boards were always taller than Brian Gionta.
Not that being the littlest guy on the ice ever mattered to Gionta or his first coaches in Rochester, N.Y. His skill level always prompted league organizers to push him up one age class. After all, hockey isn’t like the rollercoaster at Six Flags. There’s no height requirement.
So when Gionta should have played Mite minor, he was in Mite major. When his age group was playing Mite major, he played Squirt minor. And the year after, he was in Squirt major.
Ah, but then along came Peewees. Suddenly checking became a part of the game. Suddenly Gionta was in line for the rollercoaster and the attendant shooed him away.
Too Small, Too Fragile
“They told me I had to play with my normal age group,” Gionta recalls. “I guess they were afraid I wouldn’t adjust well to the hitting. That’s the first time I was told that because of my size, I couldn’t do something.”
Ever see a 12-year-old hockey player, a kid with undeniable desire to succeed, throw a tantrum? It’s not pretty.
“I was not happy at all,” Gionta says, remembering the moment as if it was yesterday, even though 18 years have passed.
That blanket “you’re too little” judgment became an all-too-familiar refrain.
“In high school I was told I couldn’t make the jump to Junior B,” Gionta says. “In Junior B, I was told I wouldn’t make it in Junior A (despite scoring 52 goals in 28 games in 1994-95). But my coach with the Niagara Scenic (a Junior A team then coached by Chris Hicks) never doubted me.”
Hicks even told Penny and Sam Gionta that some NCAA school would be giving their son a full-ride scholarship. He saw Brian battle, scoot and dart through and around defenders to score 104 goals and 218 points in 101 games over two seasons.
Once at Boston College, the early-years doubts were hard to imagine. He scored 123 goals and 232 points in 164 games during his four-year collegiate career from 1997-98 to 2000-01. He was a three-time First Team NCAA East All-American and twice a Hobey Baker Award finalist.
The New Jersey Devils were convinced of what he could do by his freshman year. They drafted Gionta in the third round, 82nd overall, in 1998. In his fourth NHL season, 2005-06, he played in all 82 games and set a Devils franchise record with 48 goals.
“We traded up [in the draft] to take Brian Gionta,” says David Conte, the executive vice president of hockey operations for the Devils and a draft guru.
“Personally, I would rather have a good big guy than a good small guy. But whether you’re big or small, you can’t hide, cheat or fake talent. It really isn’t important what I think, it’s important what the player thinks. Brian Gionta plays like he’s 6-foot-2.”
Steal Of The Draft
So does another Boston College product, Nathan Gerbe of Oxford, Mich. After having a solid training camp with the Buffalo Sabres, Gerbe started this season with the American Hockey League’s Portland Pirates and was piling up goals through the first month of the season.
The Sabres know they have a steal out of the draft after selecting him in the fifth round (142nd overall) in 2005.
“We weren’t that smart, though,” Sabres general manager Darcy Regier says. “We passed over him four times.”
So did everyone else. But the 2005 draft was before the NHL decided to let the little guy play. Gerbe stands just 5-foot-5 and weighs 160 pounds. He was just what NHL scouts didn’t want in the pre-lockout era of clutch-and-grab, hug-and-hold hockey.
“Clearly there has always been a prejudice, but there’s less of that prejudice now,” Conte says.
The bias was justified, though. Turn on the NHL Network or ESPN Classic when playoff games from the 1990s or early 2000s are airing. You’ll wonder why they’re even wearing skates.
“You can look at the draft picks by some teams and they had nothing but big guys,” Regier says. “I was watching Detroit-Winnipeg one night and no one could go anywhere,” Regier says.
“I don’t think a small player could play in that area because they couldn’t move.”
Dart And Dodge
Indeed, that’s exactly what Tampa Bay Lightning winger Martin St. Louis told the NHL as the lockout was ending, when players and executives decided to implement the crackdown on stick fouls and interference.
“I have to fake going one way so as not to be viewed as going into the offensive zone and then cut back the other way,” St. Louis told the committee. “That’s just to get open. If somebody gets a stick in my legs or hips, I’m done. I have to start over.”
That’s not the case today. Players like Gionta, Daniel Briere, Derek Roy and Brett Sterling are as valuable as the 6-foot-4, 225-pound winger.
Gerbe will soon be in Buffalo. Other mighty Mites have earned NHL and AHL contracts, like 5-8, 165-pound Marty Sertich of Coleraine, Minn.
Sertich, the 2005 Hobey Baker Award winner while at Colorado College, plays for the AHL’s Lake Erie Monsters with other Colorado Avalanche prospects. He was undrafted and signed as a free agent.
“Every year I’m one of the smallest guys,” Sertich says. “A lot of guys have a lot of pounds on me.”
Which is why he didn’t know if hockey could become a vocation after college.
“Even when I got to my junior and senior year, I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’” Sertich admits. “I was undrafted and I still
wasn’t thinking about pro hockey.”
Fuel To The Fire
Like so many others, however, Sertich refused to let a stereotype control his life. Karl Goehring plays with the same inner desire. He’s a goalie, but at 5-foot-6 and 160 pounds, he has often been bypassed because he’s supposedly too small.
“I’ve kinda just become accustomed to it,” says Goehring, a native of Apple Valley, Minn. “My agent [Neil Sheehy] always says, ‘Big guys have to prove they can’t play, and little guys have to prove they can play.’ That thinking is always there to serve as fuel to the fire.”
Goehring was a star at the University of North Dakota from 1997-98 through 2000-01. Now in his eighth AHL season, he knows NHL teams believe he’s too small to play. But he scoffs at the popular belief that small goalies wear down physically over the course of a busy season.
“There are too many things you can do to keep your body fresh in terms of nutrition, rest, sleep habits,” Goehring says.
That seems to be a popular message among players of various sizes and skill levels.
“There’s no way I could compete if I didn’t put in time in the weight room during the summer,” Sertich says.
Indeed, dedication is so important to success. So, too, is the determination to overcome.
“If you’re short on stature, you can’t be short on character,” Conte says.
When Regier watched Gerbe, he didn’t see a tiny hockey player. He saw a winner.
“What stood out was his fierce competitiveness,” Regier says. “We don’t go into a draft saying ‘Don’t draft anybody under 6 feet tall. We’re drafting players who love to play, are highly competitive and have skill.”
In essence, you’re only little if you think you are, as Gerbe and Gionta have proven.
“Brian never had any stigma that he was small,” Penny Gionta says. “My in-laws are 4-foot-10. We’re not big, the kids aren’t big. But every time Brian was told ‘You can’t do this,’ it lit an even bigger fire under his buns.”
That fire burned big. Real big.
“We heard so often he’s too small for this, he’s too small for that,” she says. “But if you’re a smaller player and you have to work harder to make the grade, I think it makes you a better player. Always having to prove yourself isn’t a bad thing in life.”
Gerbe admits that seeing Gionta dominate at Boston College, then shine on the NHL stage, gave him even more of a reason not to give up.
“It gives you hope, it gives you motivation,” Gerbe says.
Gionta knows he’s a role model for smallish kids in youth hockey programs throughout the country, too. Kids write him letters. When he’s skating in the summer at home in Rochester, or making a public appearance through the Devils, youngsters flock.
“For sure, there have been plenty of small kids in the rink that come up to you and say, ‘I enjoy watching you play, you give me hope,’ ” Gionta says.
“The thing I tell kids is to have fun. If you’re having fun and loving the game, then you’re the only person that can hold you back.”
Kevin Oklobzija covers hockey for the Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat & Chronicle.