When a player is injured everything changes for them. There is the obvious, that he doesn’t get to play in any games. But there are also other aspects to this also, which can be tough on the player. They are no longer around their teammates/brothers on a daily basis. They will skate before the team does, that is, if their injury in not a lower body injury that would prevent them from getting on the ice. All of their workouts are away from the team’s organized sessions.
Stephen Gionta’s first NHL goal:
They generally don’t go on road trips with the team either, so unless there are other injured players rehabbing with them, it’s a lonely few days, weeks or even months. Sure they get to see their buddies at the home games, before and after the games they will visit the locker room in their suits, but they are almost outcasts, or looking in from the outside at all of the fun their brothers are having playing hockey.
Stephen Gionta broke his hand in late December and would miss a total of 18 games after not missing any of the first 38. “It feels good, no issues,” he told The Hockey Writers after his first game back with the New Jersey Devils. “I’m not wearing any extra protection or anything like that. There was no surgery,” he explained, “it was a clean break. We just made sure I was (completely) healed up before I started skating again, which was about a week and a half ago or two weeks ago.”
With a hand injury, one could still skate but they would be risking further injury during a fall or slip on the ice. So off-ice workouts were on the menu for Gionta, which would have been different if he had broken a bone in his foot like teammate Damon Severson is currently coming back from. “I started (off-ice workouts) about two weeks after the break, working on legs and cardio which is all I could really do,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me do any upper body stuff. When that time came around I was able to start skating and work on my upper body strength and I was able to get back maybe a little quicker because I was able to do those lower body workouts.”
THE WAITING IS THE HARDEST PART
“I think my wife was getting sick of me,” Gionta said with a Kool-Aid smile and a laugh when we asked him what it’s like being injured during the season. “She wants me out of the house, I was driving her nuts. Like you said, you’re just not around the team as much, you’re not on the road with them — I think that’s the biggest thing. Not being with the guys and going through the day-to-day stuff with them. That’s what you miss the most for sure.” Unluckily for Stephen, his injury kept him back in frigid New Jersey last month while his teammates went to sunny California for a three-game trip before the All-Star break. “I missed that one (laughs), it was a little bit cooler here than the weather they had out there; but they had a great trip out there (taking two of three games). You miss going out to dinner with the guys, being in the middle of everything; you feel left out. When you come back though you just jump right back in, it just picks up where you left off.”
WE MISSED YOU
Although he is by far the smallest player on the team as far as height goes, Gionta has a presence on the Devils team both on, and off the ice as his teammate and boss explained. “He’s taking up all of my room over here,” said Adam Henrique with a sly smile when we asked about Gionta’s return; their stalls are right next to one another in the New Jersey locker room. “It’s good to have him back, we don’t see the guys a lot when they are injured because we have different schedules and whatnot, but it’s good to have him back in the room. He’s a key guy for us and I think he played great tonight.” Then, Henrique took one more shot at his teammate for the last four seasons. “A couple of times I was laughing at him coming off the ice a little straight-legged, he was a little tired. He played well though, he had a big hit in overtime there, forced a turnover and I got a good chance right out in front because of it.”
“You see what he brings (to the team),” said GM/coach Lou Lamoriello, “we were a little concerned because he had one practice. But he’s been skating a while, skating hard; in practice, his stamina was there. Even tonight with the minutes he did get (13:41/2:34 on the PK, 19 shifts, two hits) I thought he was fine. We used him in the overtime and he had a great shift — that hit was a big hit.”
“We wanted to see how I (my hand) reacted to my first full practice (last night),” said Gionta, before adding with a chuckle, “So I didn’t know I was playing until this morning. “We talked about it a bit this morning before the skate; I felt good, so they put me in.”
As luck would have it, he was able to return with his brother’s team in town. Both Brian Gionta and Stephen missed January match-up between the Devils and Buffalo Sabres. “It’s always fun to play against him,” said a smiling Stephen, “and it’s even more fun to win against him. There were a few games that I was eyeing for my return and fortunately for me I was able to get in there tonight.”
When their teams do cross paths during the NHL season, the two brothers always try to get together for a meal or family time. “We try to, obviously the schedule sometimes doesn’t allow us to though,” said the younger Gionta. “We were able to get together last night and he was able to see my kids — my kids were pumped; they didn’t want him to leave.”
Dan Rice is in his 9th year of reporting for THW & has covered NJ Devils home games for 15+ years at various websites. He began his journey working for legendary broadcaster/writer Stan Fischler from 2002-04 & completed an internship at the ECHL; he also has been writing features for the NWHL (nwhl.zone) website since 2016.