Captain Gionta leaves Habs with a ‘heavy heart’

 

Signs three-year, $12.75-million deal with Sabres to play near his hometown

 
 
 
 
“The whole time up until basically an hour before free agency, our hearts and minds were in Montreal, trying to get something done with them,” Brian Gionta says.
 
 

“The whole time up until basically an hour before free agency, our hearts and minds were in Montreal, trying to get something done with them,” Brian Gionta says.

Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette

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There is no bitterness in Brian Gionta, the ex-captain of the Canadiens. Not one drop.

When you’re 35 years old and you’ve just signed a three-year, $12.75-million contract to continue your career an hour’s drive from your hometown, where your biggest fans — your parents — can come to watch you play most any night, bitterness is not an emotion you feel.

And yet, bittersweetness. …

“We were fortunate to be able to play for such a great organization with such passionate fans,” Gionta said Tuesday of the Canadiens, speaking from his summer home near Rochester, N.Y. “It was great, there’s no other way to put it.

“It’s with heavy hearts that we have to leave there. It’s not an easy thing to come to terms with, but we had to look to the future and we’re excited about that. But the last five years have been a huge part of our life and we’re very lucky to have experienced it and very grateful for it.”

Gionta came to Montreal as part of the summer 2009 free-agent armada, signing a five-year, $25-million contract. He was one in a group of high-profile unrestricted free-agent signings that included Michael Cammalleri, Hal Gill, Jaroslav Spacek and Travis Moen.

Only Moen is left, Gionta on Tuesday having agreed to generous terms with the Sabres.

The captaincy of the Canadiens lay fallow during the 2009-10 season before Gionta was named the 28th man in franchise history to wear the C, so decorated before the start of the 2010-11 season.

He wore it with distinction for the next four seasons, leading by example every shift of every game, a lion-hearted leader in an economy-sized package. And he was accountable in the dressing room after every match, with very rare exceptions, while fulfilling in exemplary fashion the off-ice duties of the storied captaincy.

(Gionta’s dressing-room introduction to the media as captain was unforgettable. A small plywood box was placed in front of his seat on which he would stand to be better seen by cameras; the playful 6-foot-7 Gill sneaked over before Gionta’s arrival and stacked a second box atop it to accommodate his 5-foot-7 captain.)

It wasn’t a sure thing, in fact, that Gionta would be an ex-Canadien this week. Until shortly before Tuesday’s noon opening of free agency, his agent was talking with Habs GM Marc Bergevin.

“The whole time up until basically an hour before free agency, our hearts and minds were in Montreal, trying to get something done with them,” Gionta said. “Unfortunately, it just didn’t work out.”

Finally, it was a hurdle of contract term that proved insurmountable. Gionta said it was a sticking point from the outset; he was looking for security of a multi-year deal and the Canadiens, he said, were prepared to offer just one.

Where Gionta said he was willing to come down on dollars on a two-year deal “so that we’d meet in the middle,” he said the Canadiens’ financial offer on that term didn’t meet his request.

The Sabres, meanwhile, were one of five teams on his short list, and “they had been in it right away,” talking to him since last week’s window opened for teams to court potential free agents.

In the end, it was Buffalo’s attractive offer and many related factors that carried the day for Gionta, his wife, Harvest, and their three children: Adam, nearly 9, Leah, 6, and James, 2.

“At the age I am now, a lot depended on the term — where we want to be at the end of this contract, not having to go through a lot of stuff again,” Gionta said. “Buffalo is close to our hometown and as far as our family is concerned, it’s an easier fit than some other places would have been, an easier transition. A lot of things played into this decision.

“We were in constant contact with Bergevin over the last week and even a few times (Tuesday) morning trying to figure out where each could go. There are no hard feelings. I have a lot of respect for (team owner) Geoff Molson and Marc and (coach) Michel Therrien and everyone in the organization.

“It was a business move on their side. I completely understand — they’re protecting their interests, but at the same time I had to protect my interests and my family’s.”

In Buffalo, he will be joined by close friend and Habs teammate Josh Gorges, who accepted a trade to the Sabres just minutes before Gionta’s deal was announced. The two had been in touch during the morning and understood that both might be headed to Buffalo.

Gionta had been regularly in touch with Gorges since the weekend, when the latter learned from his agent during the NHL draft that the Canadiens were trying to trade him.

“It was a tough time for Josh. I was there for him, trying to help him out,” Gionta said. “He knew the Sabres were on my short list so it will be great to have him there.

“We’re great friends, our wives are great friends, and it’s nice having that familiarity. I think he’s going to be a huge part of the rebuild of our new team. You know the character he brings to the ice and off the ice.”

The business of hockey, Gionta said, having witnessed the Gorges situation up close, is the hardest part of the game.

“You’re dealing with human beings. It’s not just about money or contract or where you live, everybody has feelings and you’re human,” he said.

“When something like that comes down, after you’ve given your heart and soul as Gorgie has to an organization, the hope is that they have your back. I think he was hurt by it.”

Gionta called his own day Tuesday “a tough one for the family.”

“I’ve been excited thinking about the challenge ahead. That’s part of the draw, being an integral part of the Sabres’ turnaround, looking at their direction where they say they’re going. I’m happy to be a part of that.

“But at the same time, it was a day of consoling my kids, who are going to lose their friends before they make new ones. It’s always tough on the kids. I want to minimize their transition period.”

Gionta views veteran Canadiens centreman Tomas Plekanec as an obvious choice to replace him as captain here.

“With his experience and his presence, Plekanec has a lot of respect in that room,” he said. “If you’re looking for an older guy, that’s the guy to go with right now. There’s a great group of young guys coming through. I’m not sure that they’re ready for that responsibility yet, but they will be soon.”

Gionta will take some time with his family at their summer place before returning to Montreal to close up their South Shore home and move on. He needn’t be reminded that he’ll skate on Bell Centre ice on Nov. 29, when the Sabres make their first visit of the season.

“I hope it’s good,” he said of the reception, one that is pretty sure to rattle the rafters. “I hope people understand the situation: we wanted to be there, we loved being there, we loved the organization and the fans and the support we got there.

“It will be bittersweet, for sure.”

dstubbs@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: Dave_Stubbs

 
 
 
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“The whole time up until basically an hour before free agency, our hearts and minds were in Montreal, trying to get something done with them,” Brian Gionta says.
 

“The whole time up until basically an hour before free agency, our hearts and minds were in Montreal, trying to get something done with them,” Brian Gionta says.

Photograph by: Dario Ayala, The Gazette

 
“The whole time up until basically an hour before free agency, our hearts and minds were in Montreal, trying to get something done with them,” Brian Gionta says.
“The last five years have been a huge part of our life and we’re very lucky to have experienced it and very grateful for it,” Brian Gionta says of his time with the Canadiens. 
 Dario Ayala/THE GAZETTE files
 
 
 
 
 
 
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