Hockey veteran and Olympian speaks out on NHL's rule barring players from 2018 Games

Stanley Cup champion Brian Gionta is back on track to play in the Olympics in South Korea this winter -- but many of his NHL comrades are forbidden from joining him thanks to a new and highly controversial league rule.

"As a player, you want that opportunity to represent your country on a stage like the Olympics," the right winger told AOL.com. "It's the biggest thing you can do." 

The NHL announced in April that it would not allow its active players to compete in the 2018 Winter Olympics, spurring backlash from athletes and fans alike. The decision came after complaints from team owners who said that stopping the NHL season every four years to allow players to participate in the Games was not worth it. 

SEE ALSO: After 12 years away, former NHL player Brian Gionta sets sights back on Olympics

Russian hockey player Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals has been one of the most outspoken about the decision. Recently retired left winger Brandon Prust also had some strong words for the commissioner. 

Gionta, who last played in the Olympics in 2006, doesn't agree with the rule but understands the league's position on the matter.

"[The owners] have a lot of money tied up in the players and their assets, so it's tough to risk them getting injured," he said. "At the same time, as a player, you want to be playing."

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Brian Gionta through his career
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Brian Gionta through his career
USA's Brian Gionta celebrates his first peiod goal against Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Winnipeg, December 31. SB/ELD
New Jersey Devils center John Madden (L) celebrates with linemates Brian Gionta (C) and Jay Pandolfo after he beat Montreal Canadiens goalie Stephane Fiset for the first goal in the first period April 12, 2002 at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine RFS/SV
New Jersey Devils Brian Gionta (C) and Anaheim Mighty Ducks goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere (R) watch as the puck come out of the net after a goal by Devils Jeff Friesen during second period action in Game One of the NHL Stanley Cup Finals in East Rutherford, N.J., May 27, 2003. Pictures of the month May 2003 REUTERS/Brian Bahr/NHL Images/POOL GMH
Pittsburgh Penguins players surround defenseman Sergei Gonchar (L) as New Jersey Devils winger Brian Gionta (R) skates away after Gonchar scored the winning goal in the sudden death overtime period of their NHL game in East Rutherford November 1, 2005. Penguins won 4-3. REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine
Brian Gionta of the U.S. celebrates his goal during the first period of their men's ice hockey game against Latvia at the Torino 2006 Winter Olympic Games in Turin, Italy, February 15, 2006. REUTERS/Shaun Best
New Jersey Devils Brian Gionta (R) and Patrick Elias celebrate Elias' goal to beat the Calgary Flames 1-0 in overtime during their NHL hockey game in Calgary, Alberta, December 23, 2007. REUTERS/Patrick Price (CANADA)
Montreal Canadiens' Brian Gionta looks to shoot against the Tampa Bay Lightning during the first period of an NHL hockey game in Tampa, Florida December 30, 2009. REUTERS/Mike Carlson (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)
Montreal Canadiens Brian Gionta laughs after being named as the team's 28th captain in Montreal, September 29, 2010. REUTERS/Shaun Best (CANADA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)
Montreal Canadiens captain Brian Gionta takes a shot during the third period of NHL hockey action against the Nashville Predators in Montreal, November 18, 2010. REUTERS/Shaun Best (CANADA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)
Montreal Canadiens forward Brian Gionta celebrates his goal with Yannick Weber (R) during the first period of their NHL hockey game against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto April 9, 2011. REUTERS/Mike Cassese (CANADA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)
Montreal Canadiens' Tomas Plekanec of Czech Republic celebrates his power play goal with teammates Yannick Weber of Switzerland and Brian Gionta (R) during the first period of their NHL hockey game against the Los Angeles Kings in Los Angeles December 3, 2011. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok (UNITED STATES - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)
Montreal Canadiens' Brian Gionta (L) and Winnipeg Jets' Evander Kane push each other during the first period of their NHL hockey game in Winnipeg April 25, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Greenslade (CANADA - Tags: SPORT ICE HOCKEY)
Mar 5, 2014; Anaheim, CA, USA; Montreal Canadiens right wing Brian Gionta (21) celebrates with center Alex Galchenyuk (27) after scoring a goal against the Anaheim Ducks during the first period at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 15, 2014; Buffalo, NY, USA; Toronto Maple Leafs center Trevor Smith (23) tries to block a pass by Buffalo Sabres right wing Brian Gionta (12) during the second period at First Niagara Center. Mandatory Credit: Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 30, 2016; Winnipeg, Manitoba, CAN; Buffalo Sabres right wing Brian Gionta (12) celebrates his goal with teammates during the first period against Winnipeg Jets at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Bruce Fedyck-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 5, 2017; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Buffalo Sabres left wing Tyler Ennis (63) and right wing Brian Gionta (12) celebrate a power play goal by Gionta against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the first period at the PPG PAINTS Arena. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Olympic hockey players Brianna Decker and Brian Gionta take part in an event in Times Square to celebrate 100 days from the start of the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Games in South Korea, in New York, U.S., November 1, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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However, there is one silver lining for the hockey players who do get to go to PyeongChang, according to Gionta: a significantly longer trip. 

"Last time, [NHL players] were ushered in after the Opening Ceremony and flew out before the Closing Ceremony," he recalled. "You didn't get the real experience of going to other events and getting the real vibe from the Olympics." 

Gionta says he's looking forward to being a veteran that younger players can look to for help, thanks to his experience in both the Stanley Cup Final and the 2006 Games. 

He says the intensity of the Cup and the Winter Games are different -- but comparable. 

"When you're in the game, the pressure and importance of the game is all the same," he said. "It doesn't matter what kind of ice you're on, doesn't matter what kind of stadium you're in. It boils down to the competition."

To learn more, visit teamusa.org. The Winter Olympics begin February 8. 

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