BOSTON — The past several months had already looped Brian Gionta through upstate New York and South Korea, but right now he is wearing a black No. 12 Bruins sweatshirt and clutching a mesh laundry bag inside TD Garden. It is an ordinary scene around any locker room, if not refreshingly familiar for the 39-year-old winger. “There’s nothing better than playing in the NHL and being around these guys,” he says. “For sure, it’s nice to be back.”
Consider the particulars of his crammed itinerary: Two weeks ago, Gionta was busy captaining the U.S. men’s hockey team at the Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, where its quarterfinal shootout loss to the Czech Republic finished on a Wednesday afternoon, local time. After boarding a hastilybumped-up flight home to Buffalo, he spent the weekend repacking his bags and officially inked a one-year deal with the Bruins that Sunday. By Monday his truck was steering toward Boston, a red-white-and-blue C hastily swapped for a spoked B.
Even in the seen-it-all hockey universe, though, only one person truly understands how Gionta feels. “Yeah, it’s been a whirlwind in terms of what’s transpired,” Chris Kelly laughs over the phone, calling from Anaheim during a rare moment of recent peace. “A unique year, to say the least.” Similar to Gionta, he was a national team captain who found post-Olympics work with a playoff contender, signing for $1.25 million (prorated) to join the Ducks after Team Canada captured the bronze medal. The contract, which includes a potential $275,000 in total bonuses tied to team playoff performances, was signed and sent via fax machine from the Olympic village. A former Stanley Cup winner like Gionta, he also missed the closing ceremonies.
Actually, Kelly can claim an even crazier schedule. His season began on a professional tryout with the Oilers, which featured several flirtations over a full-length contract that never quite consummated. When the sides parted ways in mid-November, Kelly told himself that he would keep working out until the end of the month and then seriously consider hanging up his skates for good. Time passed. The calendar turned. Then, on a Thursday in January, he received a call from Ottawa’s AHL affiliate in Belleville, wondering if he wanted to play that weekend.
After five games, Kelly again reached a crossroads. Through agent Pat Morris, he connected with Canada GM Sean Burke and pivoted toward new goals. Next thing Kelly knew, he was representing Canada at the Spengler Cup in Switzerland and attending pre-Olympics training camp in Latvia, rejuvenated with retirement temporarily in the rearview mirror. “He needed great mental fortitude to get through this year, because the end game was to get to the NHL when he started on a pro tryout,” Morris says. “Then it switched to, ‘Let’s make the worst-case scenario the Olympics,’ which is a pretty neat thing for a 37-year-old. The best scenario is try to compete for a Stanley Cup too after winning an Olympic medal.”
Now he can. A veteran bottom-six forward of 12-plus seasons who spent ‘16-17 with the Senators, Kelly is a realistic person. “As far as I can remember, it’s been NHL players at the Olympics,” he says. “The best of the best. It’s almost been too big to dream.” For this reason, he told Morris to handle all negotiations with interested suits while he focused on cherishing the moment. But talks kicked into overdrive after Canada lost in the semifinals against Germany, and Kelly was committed to the Ducks before scoring twice over the Czechs for bronze. He flew home to Ottawa on Feb. 26, spent one day doing laundry and obtaining a work visa, and left for Anaheim on the 28th, thrust straight into the Western Conference wild card race.
“Like the Olympics, you’re playing meaningful games,” Kelly says. “That’s all you can ask for. You want to feel you’re playing for something. There’s no better situation than this.”
Sound familiar? While Gionta competed at the Olympics—he led Team USA with 16 shots on goal but finished scoreless—his agent was busy gauging interest from NHL teamslimited to those that appeared headed to the playoffs. Among those were the Bruins, currently second in the Eastern Conference, whom Gionta had already turned down over the summer when he spurned several contract offers to remain with family. “It was unique all the way around—his desire to not move the family, the fact I knew he could still play in the league, the fact it was an Olympic year,” agent Steve Bartlett says. “Everything’s worked out perfectly.”
Rust indeed appears nonexistent so far in Beantown, where Gionta starred for Boston College from ‘97-01, paving the way for an entire generation. He has six points through six games, including a nifty breakaway backhander against Philadelphia last week for his first goal, followed by a low fist pump and a big smile. He has benefited from injuries and suspensions among fellow Bruins forwards, but also earned his keep on their third line and second power play unit. “A true pro and looks like he hasn’t missed any time,” coach Bruce Cassidy said.
Kelly, meanwhile, collected his first point of the season on Monday, an assist in his sixth game on Anaheim’s fourth line, averaging than nine minutes each night, but he has happily slotted onto veteran roster with old friends such as Patrick Eaves and Antoine Vermette. “It’s nice to come into a room and know the music,” he says. “Easy listening compared to a lot of the other stuff that I had no idea what they’re saying or what’s going on.” His must appear in 50% of playoff games for his round-by-round bonuses to trigger, but this journey is hardly about extra cash. Coming off a broken leg, Kelly had appeared in all 82 games last regular season but got scratched for all but two in the ’16-17 postseason “He said, ‘I’m not ending my career that way,’” Morris recalls, “and he and worked his ass off.”
Along with a steady salary, both Gionta and Kelly brought plenty of keepsakes home from PyeongChang—signed sticks and jerseys, yes, but memorable experiences too. During his one day home, Kelly squeezed in a visit to his daughters’ elementary school, where he spoke at an assembly and showed off the bronze medal. “Just to see the reaction of the kids, the joy they got out of seeing that, not only my kids, but the kids at the school, it was pretty neat,” he says.
Neither confess to have considered what will happen after the season ends. Maybe Anaheim and Boston will lead to another job, or maybe these pitstops will etch codas into their lengthy careers. “That’s the theme of the year: day-to-day, stay in the moment,” Kelly says. “Oftentimes I’m like, ‘Wow, this is not the easiest thing to do.’ But It’s gotten me this far. It’s gotten me here. I’ll just continue to approach every day like that. It’s not always what you planned out at the start.”
Besides, how much more unpredictable could it get?