Gagner promises 'offensive threat'

STEVE GREEN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 12:38 PM ET

In French, gagner means "to win." In Sam Gagner, the London Knights are certain they've landed another winner.

The 16-year-old centre, taken 67th overall in the fourth round by the Knights in the 2005 Ontario Hockey League entry draft, was introduced to London yesterday at a news conference at the John Labatt Centre.

He played last year with Sioux City (Iowa) of the United States Hockey League, scoring 11 goals and adding 35 assists in 56 games, but said pulling out of a non-binding verbal commitment to the University of Wisconsin to play in the city where he was born was "a tough opportunity to pass up."

"Obviously, I had some options and there was nothing negative about them," he said after pulling on his new team's jersey. "London is such a great town with such a great organization. Mark and Dale Hunter and the staff they've put together, they're the reason this team has been so successful. They bring in the right people and that was a huge factor in my decision.

"I think I can be an offensive threat out there and make everyone around me better. That's what I'd like to do, but I just want to come prepared to be the best I can be."

The USHL hasn't yet adopted the new rules on clutching and grabbing, so big offensive numbers aren't possible as they are in the OHL. But Gagner said he thinks the season he spent in Iowa will allow a smoother transition.

"The USHL is a really fast-paced league. Team roll four lines and everyone's so quick defensively. I don't think it hurt me playing there and I don't want to think of (next season) as being my first in a big league, rather my second."

General manager Mark Hunter was clearly relieved to have Gagner lured him from the NCAA.

"He's going to get a heck of a chance to show his stuff. He's prime-time and he's going to turn some heads," he said. "He reminds me of Dylan (Knights graduating captain) in how he can hold on to the puck.

"We're very proud to have him as part of the organization. He's not only a very good hockey player but a very good person, and that's key.

"But it's not just Mark and Dale Hunter doing this. The city of London, the fans, the schools, have all been great. A while entourage of people helped make this possible."

Dale Hunter expects Gagner to step in right away, especially on the power play.

"We're kind of reloading, if you want to call it that," said the coach, who is also losing scoring stars Rob Schremp and David Bolland to graduation. "You've got to replace your skill players with skill players and Sam is a skill player. He's going to step in and put up numbers like Corey Perry did right away.

"He'll make the players better around him because passing is his strength."

Both Hunters hope Gagner's signing will draw three other draft picks -- Phil McRae (2006 first round), Pat Kane (2004) and Kevin Montgomery (2004).

"It's a ripple effect," Dale Hunter said. "If I'm a scorer, I know who I want to play with and that's a player like Sam."

Sam Gagner will attend St. Thomas Aquinas secondary school to get four credits he needs to graduate and will then attend Western. The educational component was key for Sam's father, former NHLer Dave Gagner.

"It was huge to me. No matter how successful you are in hockey, even if you play into your 30s, you've still got 40-plus years after that," he said. "Mark has told me he'll support whatever decision we made. They do things really well here and it makes it easier for me and my peace of mind."

Dave Gagner could soon join his son with the Knights. Mark Hunter said a decision is expected by mid-July on the assistant coach's position left vacant when Jacques Beaulieu took the head coach job with Saint John of the QMJHL.

"We just wanted to get Sam settled first," Dave Gagner said. "Mark and I are going to talk. He knows I'm interested, and I don't think it's going to be too difficult either way."


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