MANCHESTER -- The last time Stephen Gionta was on the ice for the New Jersey Devils, he was playing for the Stanley Cup.
On Saturday, the Devils winger will be on the ice at Riley Rink, taking part in a charity ice hockey game that will benefit the Bennington Autism Task Force and the rink’s Jonathan Levin Scholarship Fund.
Gionta is one of 10 NHL, American Hockey League, East Coast Hockey League and Europe-based professionals that will appear in the game. Other top names include Greg Mauldin of the Colorado Avalanche, 13-year NHL veteran Jaroslav Modry, University of Vermont alums Graham Mink and Martin Wilde and top Div. I NCAA talent Matt White.
The 12 professional players will mix with 14 local amateur players to create two teams.
"We’ve had so much excitement among the 14 guys," said Ron Marcellus, who organized the event. "They are going to tone it down a bit for us, it could be more like a game of keep away. So we are going to mix everyone."
Among the local players suiting up with the pros are Burr and Burton alums Connor Stewart and Sooner Dawson, BBA headmaster Mark Tashjian, goalie Dennis Gallagher, Castleton State College men’s ice hockey team captain Brett Zeggil and event organizers Marcellus and Keith Sullivan.
"Many of us, instead of skating maybe once a week, are all of the sudden saying maybe I ought [to] skate twice a week," said Marcellus.
The rare opportunity to see NHL players is free to the public, with a suggested $5 donation being asked for at the door. Making the game affordable is part of the Bennington Autism Task Force’s idea of making everything inclusive for everybody, said Riley Rink’s Susan Marmer.
"Since the players are not asking for appearance fees, nothing, they are just giving, we thought we would share that with the community," Marcellus said. "If people are inspired to give more, there will be a donation box."
The idea for the game came from Marcellus, who organized a charity game between local players last December.
The game was very successful and Marcellus was approached by Sullivan, a NHL scout, who expressed interest in having a summer game, complete with professional players to garner more interest.
"Keith [Sullivan], who travels all winter, couldn’t make it to the first game," said Marcellus. "He said, ‘I am off all summer, I really want to do something. What if I can get NHL players?’
"That’s how this event came about."
Sullivan made the phone calls, gathering interested players, while Marcellus teamed with Marmer to organize the event.
"This was just planned a couple of weeks ago; Keith said ‘let’s do this,’" said Marmer.
The original game was a fund-raiser for the Bennington Autism Task Force, but with the Rink on board, the organizers added the Jonathan Levin Scholarship Fund as a recipient, which provides funds for fees and equipment based upon financial need.
"A portion of the proceeds will go directly to the fund, which helps the rest of our local kids," said Marmer. "It was important that it was included."
The Bennington Autism Task Force works to create an environment where families affected by autism can thrive. The organization trains teachers, doctors and other professionals that may come into contact with people with autism, educating people about what autism is.
According to Sullivan, the players that he talked were excited to come out and help raise money for a worthy cause. The National Hockey League is also partnered with Autism Speaks, which is a national organization working to raise awareness about autism.
"We’ve noticed as we have contacted a couple of players that there is an increased awareness about the cause," said Marcellus. "The players are very excited about coming and doing this. They are curious, for some of them this is their first time doing a benefit for autism."
In addition to the raising money for the cause, both Marcellus and Sullivan are hoping to sell the area and the Riley Rink to some of the visiting players.
In addition to the game, there will be Chuck-A-Puck, a Jersey off the Back Auction and a spotlight game between the professional players and the Southern Vermont Avalanche, a local U-16 girls development team.
The Pro-Am Hockey Fundraiser will be held on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Riley Rink.