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U.S.’ top Olympic goal scorer in 2006 returns to international hockey

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Brian Gionta, who led the 2006 U.S. Olympic hockey team in goals, is practicing with an AHL club in preparation for what could be a 2018 Olympic run.

The 38-year-old forward with 15 seasons of NHL experience said he will play in an international competition in mid-November.

Gionta, who wasn’t on the 2010 or 2014 Olympic teams, made the comments after his first practice with his hometown Rochester Americans on Tuesday.

Gionta did not specify the competition, but USA Hockey will evaluate 2018 Olympic hopefuls at the Deutschland Cup in Germany in November. The Deutschland Cup roster is expected to be announced next week.

Gionta has been interested since as far back as August about potentially playing in a second Olympics in PyeongChang. Since Gionta isn’t signed with an NHL club, he is eligible.

“The focus is on the Olympics,” Gionta’s agent said, according to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle on Monday. “Obviously, he still loves to play and was not lacking NHL opportunity. But this works family wise.”

Gionta and his wife have three kids and preferred to stay in New York after he did not re-sign with the Buffalo Sabres after last season.

“So we made some hard decisions, and with that come other opportunities,” Gionta said Tuesday.

Gionta is also scheduled to be the lone men’s hockey player among more than 50 Olympians and Olympic hopefuls at a 100-day countdown event in Times Square on Nov. 1.

A USA Hockey official confirmed two weeks ago that Gionta “has a very decent opportunity” to be part of the 2018 Olympic team.

The U.S. Olympic team of 25 players named around Jan. 1 is likely to include very few, if any, players with Gionta’s experience.

Gionta led the 2006 U.S. Olympic team with four goals. The Americans lost in the quarterfinals to Finland, their worst Olympic result over the last four Winter Games.

That came during Gionta’s most productive NHL season — 48 goals (sixth in the league) and 41 assists for the New Jersey Devils.

Another Olympian — Ryan Malone from 2010 — signed a 25-game tryout deal last week with the Iowa Wild of the American Hockey League, which keeps him eligible for PyeongChang. Malone confirmed Friday that he is trying to make another Olympic team.

USA Hockey confirmed that other players in the potential Olympic pool — at some 100 players at the moment — include Nathan Gerbe. Gerbe, a 30-year-old forward, played 394 NHL games between the Buffalo Sabres and Carolina Hurricanes from 2008-16 before joining the Swiss League.

Malone and Gionta are older than all but one previous U.S. Olympic hockey player (Chris Chelios, who played at age 40 in 2002 and 44 in 2006 and is an assistant on the PyeongChang team).

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