When people walk into Bill Guerin's office, they become fixated on one piece of hockey hardware.
"They say, 'You participated in the Olympics. You have an Olympic medal,'" the retired two-time Stanley Cup champion says of winning silver in 2002 with the United States in Salt Lake City. "It's an amazing experience, so unique and such a big honour. You can't pass it up if you have the opportunity to play."
Brian Gionta, who was a teammate of Guerin's on the men's 2006 U.S. Olympic squad that finished eighth in Turin, Italy, couldn't wait for another chance to represent his country after the Buffalo Sabres opted not to re-sign the longtime NHL forward this past summer.
"When you go to the Olympic Games, you want to win," says Gionta, a 38-year-old free-agent forward. "It's one of the few things I haven't been able to win and I'd love to add that to my career."
The NHL has participated in every Winter Games since 1998 but has elected not to have its players compete in Pyeongchang in February, opening the door for players in the college and American Hockey League ranks along with others in Europe.
"I've always loved playing in the international events," says Gionta, who is practising with the Sabres' AHL affiliate in Rochester, N.Y., and working on shooting and passing skills with former Sabres forward Matt Ellis at the Academy of Hockey in Buffalo. "Being able to represent my country and try to win gold, that's the driving force."
'At these Olympics he'll be an important piece because he's been there. ... I'm sure he'll be calming nerves and guiding guys along.' — Bill Guerin on fellow ex-NHLer Brian Gionta's bid to play for U.S. at 2018 Olympics
While USA Hockey has yet to unveil its Olympic roster, Gionta is a virtual lock after the former captain of the Montreal Canadiens and Sabres sported the captain's "C" for a team of American hopefuls that posted a 0-3 record at the recent Deutschland Cup in Augsburg, Germany.
"He's been a leader on every team he's been on," says Guerin, the Pittsburgh Penguins assistant general manager who scored 429 goals across 18 NHL seasons. "When I think of Brian, I think of his competitive level. He's always had a fiery, competitive edge to his game.
"At these Olympics he'll be an important piece because he's been there. He'll not only contribute on the ice but behind the scenes. I'm sure he'll be calming nerves and guiding guys along."
Besides leadership, Gionta would bring a wealth of experience to the U.S. team, having won a NCAA title with Boston College before compiling 588 points in 1,006 NHL regular-season games over 15 seasons. He also won a Stanley Cup title with New Jersey in 2003, played in three world championships and two world junior championships.
Americans forward Kyle Criscuolo, who signed a two-year, two-way deal with the Sabres on July 1, says Gionta played a role in his NHL promotion last week.
"The release of his shot is deceptive, which is something I want to improve on," notes Criscuolo, 25, who shares many similarities to Gionta as a five-foot-nine, 172-pound right-winger with a competitive spirit and leadership skills. "I talked to him about it and tried to pick up on a few details on what he does with his stick in tight.
'He's still the hardest worker out there'
Criscuolo, a Harvard graduate who captained the Crimson in his final two seasons, says Gionta goes out of his way to interact and offer advice to the young Rochester players.
"I think he's helped the team just in the way he carries himself," says Criscuolo, who topped the Americans with 11 points in 14 games before his promotion. "He's still the hardest worker out there [at practice]. It's inspiring and … makes you want to dig in after practice and try to perfect a couple of things that will help you at the next level."
In his practice-only role with the Amerks, Gionta has had more time and opportunity to analyze the game than he would as a player, picking the brain of head coach Chris Taylor and his staff to learn about their thought process in hopes of finding his niche for a potential future in coaching and player development.
For now, the Rochester native's wish list includes winning Olympic gold and signing an NHL contract later this season with a playoff contender. His agent, Steve Bartlett, received "three or four" offers in the summer but Gionta put family first and didn't want to uproot his wife and three young children for a one-year deal outside Buffalo.
"If he goes [to the Olympics] and plays the way I think he's capable of … there's a very good chance we would have an opportunity before the Feb. 26 trade deadline to sign on with somebody," says Bartlett.
"He played every game last year and still had 15 goals [largely playing on the Sabres' third line], which in today's game is not insignificant. He can bring such an element of leadership, character and work ethic. He's the perfect guy to add for a playoff run."