Brian Gionta wears the ‘C’ with class
Habs captain uses his influence in the most inspirational ways, meriting the Jean Béliveau Trophy for charity and community work
MONTREAL — It was hockey night, 40 minutes before Saturday’s faceoff between the Canadiens and visiting Carolina Hurricanes, and Brian Gionta was woefully out of uniform — even in a stylish navy suit.
He would much rather have been a short walk away in the Bell Centre, behind the sliding steel doors of the Canadiens dressing room, pulling on his No. 21 jersey for his team’s preseason game.
This could happen as early as this week, the Habs captain hoping to be cleared for action Wednesday or Thursday following biceps tendon surgery four months ago and extensive rehabilitation through the summer.
But now, Gionta was sitting to talk in the arena’s ice-level alumni lounge, beneath many portraits of Canadiens legends. In a half-hour, he would step out to centre ice and accept the Jean Béliveau Trophy from the award’s iconic namesake.
“It’s a huge honour,” Gionta said of the annual team prize recognizing charity and community work, a $25,000 donation from the Montreal Canadiens Children’s Foundation going to a charity he will choose.
“Mr. Béliveau is just a huge key to this organization and to the history of this team. He’s such a great ambassador, so well respected. To be awarded something with his name on it …,” Gionta said, his unfinished sentence speaking as loudly as any words he might have spoken.
The 34-year-old native of Rochester, N.Y., is a professional athlete who gets it — that is, who understands that the pedestal on which he’s placed comes with special, even profound responsibility.
Not that the Canadiens captaincy to which Gionta was named three Septembers ago, intensifying the spotlight, has changed the path he walks through life.
With his wife, Harvest, Gionta uses his fame in many charitable ways, the smile he can put on a gravely sick child’s face worth every bit as much as the funds he helps raise with involvement in a wide variety of projects.
This work is nothing new. Since Gionta signed his first pro contract with the Devils in 2001, the couple have been involved with charities in their hometown and in New Jersey.
Since his 2009 arrival in this city, Gionta has sponsored a Bell Centre loge for the use of the Canadiens Children’s Foundation, which every home game hosts ill and underprivileged children and their families, spoiling them for a few hours to chase away their dark clouds.
The captain and his wife are involved in many of the foundation’s initiatives, as they were with other projects before they landed in Montreal.
As she did in New Jersey, Harvest continues to organize wintertime clothing donations for needy families, “finding little things,” Gionta said, “that make a big difference.”
“The foundation here is great,” he added. “They help facilitate a lot of things so you don’t have to go out on your own. Harvest is involved in all the charities the foundation does, and then there are plenty of other things we get involved with. You help out whatever way you can.”
The vast majority of what Gionta and his wife do — and other Canadiens players and their wives and girlfriends — is off the public radar. Annual holiday-season children’s hospital visits draw much media attention, but they aren’t even the iceberg’s tip.
“You know so many people, you have so many friends who have friends and you find out about certain things,” Gionta said. “You try to accommodate whatever you can. You pick and choose what you feel very strongly about, where you put the main part of your efforts. It’s very hard to say no when it’s a special situation.”
To be in the Canadiens dressing room an hour after a game, long after the cameras and notebooks have left, is to see the deep impact players have on many lives.
Foundation executive director Geneviève Paquette will usher in a youngster and their family, a favourite player awaiting star-struck child with an autograph, a photo, a comforting word, often a priceless souvenir.
Some of these children are on the road to recovery. But others have weeks or less to live. Gionta, the father of three healthy, young children, feels a crowbar dug into his chest with every such visit.
“It’s very tough to deal with some of the situations,” he admitted. “It’s hard to feel that you have any significance to a sick kid. One came by last week, soon going in for a huge operation. You meet him after the game, take him on a tour, take some pictures, spend some time with him and his family. He was terminally ill, just a young kid. It’s very touching, very hard to deal with.
“The hospital visits every year are a tug both ways. You come home and appreciate the health you’ve been afforded, but at the same time you see what all these other families are going through and how blessed you are that you’re not going through that.”
Gionta paused, emotion welling up in him.
“You feel so much for them. You’re a parent. You can’t imagine what they’re going through, but it still gets you thinking about it.”
Now, he says, with three children, he and Harvest can be role models at home with their daily deeds, which he believes carries more weight than merely talking about what’s right.
“It’s the little gestures, like holding a door for an elderly lady who’s coming into a store, that your kids see,” Gionta said. “You can say all you want, but unless you’re doing things, acting a certain way …
“You can say, ‘Be a part of your community and help unfortunate kids.’ But it’s much more powerful when you bring your kids to pick out Christmas gifts for the less fortunate or the families you sponsor, and they help with the wrapping.”
Gionta’s name is on the 2002-03 Stanley Cup for a championship he won with New Jersey, a reflection of his hockey talent. That his name is now engraved on the Jean Béliveau Trophy speaks to the values he holds dear, qualities that enrich the lives of more Montrealers than he’ll know.
“For a long time, I’ve been very fortunate for the position I’ve been put in and the life I’ve been afforded,” he said. “I’m playing a game I dreamed of playing and I’m very well compensated for it.
“What makes Montreal so special is that you’re a public figure. You’re noticed. And you’re able to use that status in a good way. You can give something back.”
© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette
Canadiens captain Brian Gionta is presented with the Jean Béliveau Trophy by the award’s namesake before Saturday’s preseason game at the Bell Centre. Gionta has been involved with charities since signing his first pro contract with the Devils in 2001
Photograph by: Graham Hughes, The Canadian Press