The list of boys team sports in which freshmen can make a real impact is shorter than the list of Grammy-winning teen heart-throb bands.
Rarer still is the freshman who not only stands out but fits in. That was never a problem for Stephen Gionta during his one-and-well-done year at Aquinas Institute (Rochester, N.Y.), during which he showed the early signs of the proverbial motor never stops.
"Everyone increased their level of play around him," said Grady Monks, Gionta's coach in that 1998-99 season. "I'd tell him to turn it down a notch or else he was going to wear himself out – but he never did."
Gionta, now 28, has toiled primarily in the American Hockey League for six seasons since his graduation from Boston College and was better known as the brother of Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta before his playoff run this spring put him on the radar of fans following the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Entering Wednesday's Game 4 in Los Angeles, Gionta has three goals and four assists to go with a plus-5 rating in 21 NHL playoff games while helping the New Jersey Devils to the finals. Before college and pro hockey, though, Gionta was a standout wing in his freshman season at Aquinas.
The Little Irish brought back a loaded roster from a team that won the 1998 New York State Public High School Athletic Association Division II championship. That could have made for limited ice time, but Gionta was a dynamic combination of skill and desire, a grinder in the mold of a string of recent NHLers to come out of the mid-sized city on Lake Ontario's southern shore.
"He fit in nicely and was totally a team player," said Monks, who was a first-year coach of the Little Irish that winter. "He worked his tail off and gave 110 percent every day. He didn't worry about points, he worried about winning."
Though diminutive in stature, Gionta was fearless in the corners and persistent around the net, a combination that made him one of the team's leading scorers as well as a first-team all-star in the Monroe County High School Hockey League.
Even before the season was over, Monks sensed Gionta would be moving along soon. After a season with the Rochester Junior Americans, Gionta spent two years skating for the U.S. National Development Team and then went on to an accomplished college career at BC.
"There was no reason for him to stay," Monks said. "The kid stood out above all others and had aspirations for a Division I college career. I knew he was ‘One and done' but that it was going to be a great move for him."
Not that Gionta didn't offer up some parting gifts to cap a 20-3-4 season. He scored the game-winning goal in the 1999 state semifinal and then scored twice in the next day's championship game against Cortland/Homer to wrap up tournament MVP honors and help the Little Irish to another title.
An underclassman rolling up individual honors always has the potential to create issues in the locker room. Understandably, older players aren't always on board with surrendering playing time or newspaper write-ups to young upstarts.
But that's one more aspect that set Gionta apart from other scholastic stars. Along with friend Ryan Callahan, now the captain of the New York Rangers, he'd played a lot of hockey – on snow-covered streets or in dimly lit rinks – against the older guys.
"Hey, he has two older brothers," said David Nuccitelli, who was a senior when he played alongside Gionta at Aquinas. "He knew how to handle himself around the team."
One episode in particular stood out to Nuccitelli, who centered a line including the smurfish Gionta and Rob Giambrone.
Nuccitelli and his linemates liked to playfully boast that they were the speediest line in all of New York, but one day the guys on Aquinas' second line threw down a challenge and demanded a skate-off consisting of an end-to-end sprint at the rink the next afternoon.
Nuccitelli, a 5-foot-11 and physical center, was the weak link in the speed department. But Gionta knew how to draw the best effort from his friend.
"I loved cheeseburgers from a place called Schaller's, not far from the rink," Nuccitelli said, laughing. "He stopped for a cheeseburger before practice, set it down on the goal line for me and told me to go get it."
Nuccitelli ran into Gionta last summer and was delighted, but not surprised, to see that his high school teammate hasn't changed in the last 13 years.
"He had a big smile," Nuccitelli said, "and he said to me, ‘You know, I can't believe I get to play hockey for a living.'"
And play it well.