Hockey is a quick game -- almost to a fault. One flick of the wrist and blink of an eye can mean the difference between a game winning goal, killed penalty or lost tooth. The chaos can be hard to follow -- as can the puck, a common critique of the sport by American audiences -- and the several battles that take place within a single contest can lead to certain stories getting lost in the shuffle.
But that's not something you need to tell to Stephen Gionta -- he knows plenty about getting lost in the shuffle. "It's a business," he'll tell you. And not always a kind one. Undersized, at a generously listed 5'7", and overaged, at an unfortunately accurate 28 years old, Gionta holds the career record for games played with the Albany Devils, the minor league hockey affiliate of the New Jersey Devils. Since he signed with Albany six years ago as an undrafted free agent out of Boston College, Gionta has seen many younger, more highly touted prospects do their time alongside him before eventually getting called up to New Jersey to have their shot at the next level. "They get to fulfill their dream of playing in the NHL," he'd say. "So you have to feel happy for those guys."
But it seemed Stephen's chances of achieving his dream might be forever on hold. While his older brother Brian was busy fending off the likes of the Rangers and the Flyers in the NHL and securing his name amongst New Jersey greats for scoring the most goals in a single season, Stephen continued to bide his time in the minors while waiting for his chance to prove himself. As years passed, a kid chasing a fantasy gradually became a husband and father hoping to support a young family. Stephen would eventually notch Albany's franchise records for goals and assists, a bittersweet representation of the success, but also length of stay, he had had with the club.
Eventually Gionta would get called up for the beginning of the 2010 NHL season, but after 12 lackluster games in which he failed to accumulate a single point, he was sent back down to his familiar stomping grounds in Albany, where it seemed he would play out his career. "You kind of go in every year hoping for a chance," he said. "But part of being a pro is understanding that there is a business aspect and if you don't get that opportunity, then you know what, we're still playing a game for a living."
And so it would seem, that was that. Gionta got the chance he had worked so hard for and it had passed him by -- a sad, but all too familiar tale.
But on April 3, for one of the few times in his career, Gionta would get a break -- although not in the traditional fashion. In the second period of a mostly meaningless New Jersey Devils game against the New York Islanders, Devils center Jacob Josefson would fracture his wrist in a collision with an opposing player. Following the game, Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello would contact Albany and request that Stephen join the squad for practice. "I didn't think that call would come," Gionta would later say. Stephen would be brought up as an emergency player, only to be used if needed. After some several days of nervous waiting, including being sent back to Albany at one point, Gionta received word that he would get to play in New Jersey's final regular season game.
And from there, things changed for Stephen Gionta.
With the Devils tied 2-2 in the third period with the Ottawa Senators, Gionta began streaking down the ice as teammate Alexei Ponikarovsky carried the puck towards the net.
Three hundred and sixty minor hockey league games later, Stephen Gionta scored his first NHL goal -- and it was a game winner.
"I couldn't have imagined this," he would tell reporters after the game. "Every kid dreams of getting a goal in the NHL, but it came in a game-winning situation. It really hasn't hit me yet. It hasn't quite sunk in. I just wanted to come in and try to help the team."
Gionta's play was cause for celebration, and he teammates took notice.
"That guy, he's five feet tall and he plays like seven feet tall," Devils leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk said of a the diminutive forward.
As it turned out, Gionta picked a convenient time and situation to score his first career goal. Josefson would be injured for several weeks and Stephen just so happened to have scored a game winner in the last game the Devils would play in the regular season.
As the Devils determined their roster heading into the first round of the playoffs, Gionta awaited his fate. "If I get that chance it would be unbelievable," he said. "It would be something special."
The morning before the puck was set to drop, Gionta got a call informing him that he would be participating in the first National Hockey League playoff game of his career that evening.
From there, all Brian's younger brother would do was play physical hockey against larger foes while scoring timely goals. Fitting with the script, Gionta would score a goal in the Devils decisive seventh game of their first round series against the Florida Panthers. New Jersey would go on to win 3-2 in overtime.
Asked to describe that goal, Gionta pauses, only to glowingly say, "I can't even explain it in words."
And now, a little more than a month after Stephen Gionta wasn't on anybody's radar as a possible NHL player, he has anchored the Devils upstart fourth line through the team's impressive 4-1 series victory over the Philadelphia Flyers.
"It's just great from a fan perspective to see him getting a shot and succeeding," explains David Vaimberg, a Devils season ticket holder. "He could've easily thrown in the towel on hockey and gone on and done something else, but he kept working."
Indeed, Gionta's success has even come as a surprise to the man who was responsible for calling him up. "Who a month ago would say he would have two goals, and key goals, in the playoffs?" Lamoriello, the Devils GM, told The Bergen Record.
Yes, his playoff run has been impressive by any measure, but Gionta's work is far from over. In order to get a chance to play for the Stanley Cup, his Devils will need to overcome either a more talented New York Rangers squad that led the conference in points, or a red-hot Washington Capitals team that would be fresh off series victories over the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in addition to the Rangers. Suffice to say, not many experts like New Jersey's chances against either foe.
But then again, perhaps it's for the best if Stephen Gionta isn't dealt favorable odds.
He wouldn't know what to do with them.