Bridgeport’s smaller players making big impact

John McCreary

by John Kaywood | AHL On The Beat

It was never official, but for years, playing pro hockey seemed to come with a height requirement.

The game has changed over the past decade and a trio of Sound Tigers – Connor Jones(5’9), Travis St. Denis(5’7) and Stephen Gionta (5’7) – are living proof. All three are 5’9 and under, but they don’t let their height define their game.

“You look at the game now and everyone can skate and move pretty well, whether you’re 5’6 or 6’6,” Jones said. “I’m a pretty big believer in size doesn’t matter as long as you work hard and you can out-battle anybody.”

Jones has a career-high eight goals during his fourth season in the AHL and is a staple on Bridgeport’s penalty kill due to his work ethic and motor. St. Denis, Jones’ former college teammate at Quinnipiac University, is also having a breakout year, leading the Sound Tigers in goals (23) and points (44). Both are career-highs and double his output from last season.

St. Denis’ biggest game came last month, as the Trail, B.C, native had a five-point performance (3G, 2A) on March 15 against the Rochester Americans – one of just five Sound Tigers to ever record that many points in a single contest.

For St. Denis, hockey sense can beat out size.

“I think it’s all about finding those quiet areas where not many teams defend,” St. Denis said. “Couple that hockey IQ and always thinking out there is huge for success.”

And just because Jones, Gionta and St. Denis are on the small side doesn’t mean they play that way. All three still play physical games and even if they don’t produce highlight-reel hits, aren’t afraid to battle.

Gionta, the veteran of the group with 296 NHL games, noticed the turning point when the AHL and NHL began to have an even playing field for the smaller skater.

“Since the lockout they kind of changed the rules to allow hockey to become more of a speed game,” Gionta said. “It helps tremendously. I can use skating as an advantage to getting in and out of there versus the bigger bodies.”

One individual that has been the standard bearer for those shorter hockey players, who dominated against the bigger bodies for years, is Martin St. Louis. Listed at 5’8, 180 lbs., St. Louis scored 1,033 points in the NHL, won two scoring titles, an MVP award, and a Stanley Cup.

“I wore number 26 in juniors and college pretty much because of him,” St. Denis said. “He worked hard every single night and was a key factor on every team he played for.”

Gionta echoed the same sentiments about St. Louis, but also had others in mind.

“It was always great watching Muggsy Bogues dunk the basketball at 5-foot-3,” Gionta said. “Also growing up, I was watching Theo Fleury and my brother (Brian), my brother being one of those guys that has paved the way for smaller players.”

As a matter of fact growing up, hockey was not the only sport that Gionta and Jones participated in.

“I was a baseball player growing up and I had a chance to play in college,” Jones said. “Some days I think about batting leadoff and playing second base, but things have definitely worked out for the best.”

The message to youngsters out there who are unsure if they should give hockey a shot is a simple one.

“The way the game is today, more smaller guys are making the next level,” St. Denis said. “The first thing obviously is you got to have fun. Growing up as kids you just have fun out there and enjoy it.”