By Larry Wigge
Stephen Gionta stands 5-feet-nothing ... generously speaking.
Call him an unlikely hero, if you will. After spending six season in the minors, he thought he might finally be given a chance. There were no commitments from the New Jersey Devils. No guarantees that this career minor leaguer would get an opportunity of a lifetime.
No promises that he might become a Cinderella story of this year's playoffs.
"No, I didn't really have any expectations," Gionta explained. "I'd been told I may be sticking around for the playoffs. They were going to try to get me in for that last game against Ottawa."
Little did the undrafted player from the Rochester, N.Y., know that in that game against the Senators, he would score the winning goal in the Devils 4-2 victory on April 7.
That was Gionta's first NHL point ever. He had only up for 12 games at the start of the 2010-11 season. But, he is proving with every opportunity he gets that he can play no matter what size he is.
In 17 playoff games, he has three goals and three assists.
There are no pedigrees with this little guy, Stephen's biggest claim to fame is that he helped Boston College win a NCAA championship in 2006 or that his brother Brian Gionta was a little guy who played with a big heart and helped the Devils win a Stanley Cup in 2003.
"How can you not enjoy this? It's the Stanley Cup playoffs," Gionta said, rejoicing in his moment. "This is every kid's dream. It's just fun to be a part of this right now and just trying to enjoy every moment."
Fourth line duty -- that's normally about five to 10 minutes a game. But in the case of Gionta, Ryan Carter and Steve Bernier, they have formed a dynamic fourth line that has been crucial to the Devils success. On this night, Gionta was being double-shifted by coach Peter DeBoer.
Gionta opened the scoring for the Devils, as they rolled to a 3-0 lead. Then, after the New York Rangers rallied to tie it, Gionta centered the pass out of the corner to Carter for the tiebreaker with 4:24 left, on a play initially set up by Iyla Kovalchuk's hard forecheck in the corner.
"Kovy did a great job getting it on the forecheck," Gionta said. "The puck was just sitting there, I closed my eyes and threw it out to Carts."
Did he really close his eyes? Well ...
"No, I didn't close my eyes," Gionta said, laughing. "I saw him coming down the middle and was hoping he was still alone."
The little man with a big heart had succeeded again, leading the Devils to a 5-3 victory -- giving New Jersey a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference finals matchup.
"He's come in here and there's been zero intimidation on his part about the situation or about the spots I've put him in or about the guys he's lining up against on a nightly basis," said DeBoer. "I give the kid all the credit in the world. He's been fantastic.
"He's a little guy with a big heart like his brother."
Said Kovalchuk, "That guy, he's five feet tall ... and he plays like seven feet tall."
But whatever Stephen Gionta may lack in innate skill or size, the 28-year-old has more than made up for it in good old-fashioned sweat and hard work and an attitude that has helped carry him through more than a few disappointments along the way.
If it weren't for hockey, Gionta would have to contemplate another line of work.
"That's what keeps you going," he said. "It's been tough, but that comes with the business aspect of the game."
Devils president and general manager Lou Lamoriello was quite candid in saying he never would have given Stephen a shot if it weren't for the team's experience with his brother.
"It's such a solid family. If we hadn't had Brian we probably wouldn't have given Stephen a chance," Lamoriello said. "You know the character. You know their makeup."
When Jacob Jasefson got hurt, Lamoriello said there was discussion about which player to bring up. But there was little disagreement that Gionta was their man.
"He was the right player to bring in at the time," Lamoriello said of the youngest of three Gionta brothers. "He's earned everything he's got. This hasn't been a gift or a favor. He's earned the ice time the coaches give him.
"Stephen's here because he deserves to be here."
You won't get any disagreement from Gionta, the captain of the Albany Devils.
"Obviously it's great to see him getting rewarded because he's worked so hard," Brian Gionta said. "It's been an uphill battle most of his career."
The Gionta brothers talks or text on a regular basis.
"I don't know if I've been helpful at all," Brian said. "I've always tried to be there for him. Coming out of training camp has always been the worst time for him.
"In those times you just try and be there for him."
Captain Zach Parise thinks Gionta deserves a new contract, "His speed backs defenders off. He really gets in fast on the forecheck. He's responsible."
Sam and Penny have been there for their boys. They have driven countless hours, packing up the kids in their Chevy cargo van and never thinking about traveling 500-600 miles to see older brother Joe, Brian or Stephen play hockey.
They got to about 800,000 miles on the van before they sold it a couple of years ago while he was running a hardware store in Greece (suburb of Rochester). Sam now drives a company car, so you can see how things have changed.
Gionta or his brother Stephen wouldn't say they had a chip on his shoulder that wouldn't let him quit, even when someone was always there to say he couldn't make it at the next level. He preferred to insist that the real drive was the positive reinforcement he received from his parents, Sam and Penny Gionta.
"He ran a hardware store in Greece (N.Y.) and imparted his work ethic on my older brother, Joe, myself and my younger brother, Stephen," Brian Gionta recalled. "We've got this van. It must have about 500 or 600 miles on it from him taking us to hockey games through the years."
It's at this point in the story where I could say that Brian or Stephen or Joe learned the nuts and bolts of the game from others, but became mentally tough as nails by watching how important it was for Sam Gionta to quit his job as a home improvement contractor, bought a hardware store and hired a few good people so that he could find time to be with his boys and help them advance in life to the point where Joe is coaching a Pee-wee team in the Rochester Youth Hockey program.
It's here where we say that Brian or Stephen or Joe would say, they have never doubted themselves.
"No. When you get to this point, if you have that doubt I feel that's when you're not going to succeed," Stephen said. "You have to have confidence in what you're doing out there. The coaching staff has showed that and I want to make sure I don't make them look back for trusting me."
Fourth line duty or whatever the job. Stephen Gionta has earned every minute of playing time.