Cross Checks: Stephen Gionta

In terms of reunions, this would have to fall into the bittersweet category.

You could hardly blame Stephen Gionta for thinking or, at the very least, hoping that he had permanently put the American Hockey League in his rearview mirror with a strong performance in the playoffs last spring with the New Jersey Devils.

But the NHL lockout has disrupted many a best-laid plan, and so it was that after working out with his frozen-out Devils teammates -- oddly enough at the team’s practice rink in downtown Newark -- Gionta signed recently with the Devils’ AHL affiliate in Albany.

But Gionta, the younger brother of Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta, did not throw his equipment over his shoulder and trudge into practice with downcast eyes and a heavy heart.

The former captain of the Albany squad said he was excited to reconnect with players who weren’t just his teammates but his close friends.

“It was really good; I have a lot of good friends there,” he said.

Gionta was able to sign with the Little Devils in Albany because he was on the team’s "clear day" list last spring, which meant he was eligible for last season's AHL playoffs and eligible to sign with the team when the lockout began Sept. 15.

Gionta and his agent, Stephen Bartlett, spoke with Devils GM and president Lou Lamoriello and Lamoriello’s son Chris, who manages the Albany squad, about what would be best for Gionta.

All agreed that it would be best to wait and hope for an early resolution to the labor dispute.

It didn’t happen and as Gionta candidly pointed out, he doesn’t have the financial security of many of his peers. So for financial reasons and to stay game-ready for when (if?) the lockout ends, all parties decided a couple of weeks ago that it was time for Gionta to return to his roots with the Albany Devils.

“I couldn’t take the financial hit; that definitely played a part in my decision,” Gionta said.

Gionta has played in two games thus far and if there was strangeness, it was popping in on the team in midseason as opposed to during training camp.

“I think that was the biggest transition for me,” he said.

Gionta couldn’t be blamed for having thought that these experiences -- the bus rides, along with the quirky schedule of having three AHL games in three nights, sometimes all away from home, aren’t out of the norm -- would be a thing of his past.

When Jacob Josefson went down with an injury late in the regular season, Gionta was called up to the NHL and played in the Devils’ final regular-season game, scoring the winning goal. Instead of heading back to Albany, Gionta was told he’d be sticking around for the playoffs. Actually, he more than stuck around, forming a dynamic fourth-line unit with Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier that was a catalyst to the Devils’ advancing to their first Stanley Cup finals since 2003.

The group forechecked like demons, created turnovers, drew penalties and scored timely goals. It was, until the buzzer sounded in Game 6 of the finals and the Los Angeles Kings celebrated their first-ever Cup championship, a magical spring for Gionta and the Devils.

Nothing was guaranteed, of course, but it’s hard to imagine that Gionta wouldn’t have found himself on the opening-day roster in October had the lockout not set the hockey world off its axis.

Gionta, who had three goals and four assists in the playoffs, understands that nothing was set in stone. In fact, he relishes the opportunity to prove himself yet again. It’s something he has been doing his entire career as an undersized player.

“You always have to prove yourself, to earn your spot,” Gionta said. “Your job’s always on the line, every season. There’s always someone looking to jump right up and take your spot. If you’re not ready for it, you’re not going to be sharp.”

His relationship with the Devils reminds us that in spite of the rancor of the labor dispute and the repeated angry comments and name-calling of commissioner Gary Bettman by some players, in many (if not most) cases, the relationships between players and owners is at least cordial and often much more than that.

The Devils under Lamoriello have long been an organization in which loyalty is more than just a word, but a way of doing business. The Devils took a chance on Brian Gionta with the 82nd overall pick in 1998 and he delivered in spades, helping the Devils to their Stanley Cup in 2003 and scoring a career-best 48 goals in 2005-06. In an interview before the Cup finals, Lamoriello told ESPN.com that had he not developed a relationship with Brian and the Gionta family, the team probably wouldn’t have given Stephen Gionta a chance after he left Boston College.

In turn, Stephen has been a loyal foot soldier for the Devils, remaining with the team from the get-go and emerging as a strong leader at the AHL level while biding his time, waiting for an NHL break. That he is back in the AHL hoping that NHL break wasn’t just a fleeting moment has done little to shake Gionta’s feelings about the Devils.

“The organization’s been great to me,” he said. “I’m very fortunate for the opportunities that they’ve given me.”

Along with working out with Devils teammates in Newark, Gionta has used his time during the lockout to do more visiting with family. A father of two -- a daughter who just turned 3 and a 10-month-old son -- Gionta has also been able to spend time with Brian and his family.

The two actually played on the same line in a charity game in Cornwall, Ontario.

As for working out at the Devils’ practice facility, which is adjacent to the Prudential Center, the team’s NHL home, Gionta acknowledged it was strange not using their regular dressing room and facilities, instead using a more spartan dressing room.

“But at the end of the day, you’re still there working out with your teammates, guys who are right there with you in the same situation,” he said.

Gionta said that the wild ride of the labor talks has been frustrating for the players and also for the team because of the lost opportunity coming off a long, emotional playoff run.

“You want to play so badly, just to see the roller coaster that it’s going through, it’s tough,” Gionta said.

“Hopefully both sides can figure this out sooner than later,” he added.

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