Gambardella provides leadership, humor for Utica Comets

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UTICA — Joe Gambardella received some advice from one of hockey’s most legendary players early in his career.

Not long after starting his pro career with the Edmonton Oilers organization as an undrafted forward in April 2017, Gambardella met Wayne Gretzky.

After Gambardella got over some initial shock from having the opportunity to meet the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, Gretzky shared advice that has remained with Gambardella:

“Leave the game in a better place than when you found it.”

The 28-year-old Gambardella has seemingly tried to follow that motto with a blend of leadership, humor and a hard-working attitude as an alternate captain for the Utica Comets.

Recently, that led to the Staten Island native earning the Comets’ Class Guy award. The honor is named after Clinton Comets standout Dave Armstrong.

“I was incredibly honored,” said Gambardella, a winger who is also set to have a summer camp youth players this summer in Utica with A.J. Greer. “I didn’t know much history about it. People around the rink were sending me articles talking about Dave Armstrong and the kind of guy he was. I’m privileged and honored to accept an award like that. At the same time, I don’t get an award like that without having a locker room like we do. When you bring in the guys that we have in there, it makes our lives that much easier to walk in, mesh well and have fun. I do my part, but at the same time I don’t get anything without those guys in the locker room.

“That’s been the whole thing all year: We don’t have individual success without team success. That’s been the motto, everyone gets it and that’s why we’re in the position we are. … I’m just glad we got everybody back and now can make for a nice, exciting ride.”

He’s referring to the Calder Cup playoffs in which the Comets, after a 42-win season, are the top seed in the North Division. The team is set to start its best-of-five division semifinals series Tuesday. Utica awaits the winner of a first-round series between Rochester and Belleville.

Comets coach Kevin Devin said Gambardella’s character is important.

“When you care for others and you’re checking in on teammates and not doing it because the coach wants you want to or you know the guy, I think there’s a real sincerity to the way Joe lives his life,” Dineen said. “It has made for an incredibly successful hockey career. He has absolutely maximized all of his talent and his ability to be a good teammate is a big part of that.”

This season, Gambardella had career-bests in games (65) and assists (21). His 31 points are second-most in his career. He’s played 248 AHL games along with 10 playoff contests.

Gambardella also helps bring levity on the ice. He’s a fan of using movie quotes in conversation and has been doing an homage to “Dumb and Dumber” during warm-ups through his career. During warm-ups, he pounds two water bottles on the top of the boards and the water spray mimics a scene from “Dumb and Dumber” in which the characters are trying to cool the effects of hot peppers with ketchup and mustard.

“It just kind of came to me one day,” Gambardella said. “When you get to keep things like that loose around the rink, it keeps the players loose. There’s fun involved. That’s when you’re going to have the most success and you’re looking forward to being around the guys.”

Roll call

Greer didn’t practice Tuesday, though could return Wednesday. Dineen said they want to make sure “anyone that steps on the ice is as healthy” as possible.

Forward Frederik Gauthier (lower-body) skated Monday, but didn’t participate Tuesday. They will see what his availability is in the coming days.

Forward Samuel Laberge also skated Monday. Dineen said they’re optimistic he’ll be back “in the next couple weeks.”

Goaltender Mareks Mitens also didn’t participate Tuesday.

Anas earns honor

Sam Anas, who played with Utica in 2021, earned the AHL’s Fred T. Hunt Memorial Award as the player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey.

The award is voted on by coaches, players and members of the media in each of the league’s 31 member cities.

Anas has played six AHL seasons with Utica, Springfield and Iowa. He’s totaled 284 points in 357 games. He has 56 penalty minutes, including zero majors or misconducts.

Anas earned the Comets’ “Class Guy” award in 2021. He was tied for the team lead in points with 23 in 23 games. 

With Springfield this season, Anas set team records in assists and points, leading his team in scoring for the third consecutive season. He also reached the 20-goal mark for the third time.

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