Gagner throwback to old days

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:33 AM ET

A lot of people are trying to figure out what makes Sam Gagner tick.

Here's a young kid who is standing the OHL on its ear.

In his first year with the London Knights, the 17-year-old forward is well out in front in the league scoring race with seven goals and 24 assists in nine games. Last week, he had 14 points in four games.

People talk about his vision, his soft hands, his passing, his ice-cool demeanour and his ability to read the play.

He has all of that in abundant quantities.

But there's one critical aspect to Gagner's game that makes him special.

He plays with great joy, the way it's supposed to be played. He's a throwback to hockey days gone by when kids spent hours on a backyard rink, learning the skills of the game by simply doing.

Gagner's dad Dave built a rink in the backyard in Oakville.

"When he was 14 and 15, he would play three hours a day at night. He would play 10 hours on the weekend," Dave said. "They have cellphones and they would order pizzas to the rink. You'd go out there and the place would be littered with pizza boxes. He was either playing hockey or doing homework."

Sam's backyard rink would play host to a number of players now in the OHL, including budding superstar John Tavares.

"We had some pretty heated one-one-one battles on the rink. He'd tell you he won most of them, but he'd be lying," said Sam.

Ex-NHLer Dave is an assistant coach with the Knights. Sam's journey to the John Labatt Centre began when the Knights took drafted him in the fourth round, 67th overall, in 2005. He would have been a first-rounder, but it appeared he was going the U.S. scholarship route.

Gagner spent last season with the Sioux City (Iowa) Musketeers in the United States Hockey League, notching 11 goals, 46 points and 60 penalty minutes in 56 games.

"He would have gone in the first round," said Knights GM Mark Hunter. "When a player like that is available, you have to take him. We kept in touch with him. It helped that Basil McRae (part owner of the Knights) and Dave Gagner played together for six or seven years in Minnesota.

"One thing I saw last year when I went to see Sam play, he didn't look happy playing. Hockey is not No. 1 in Sioux City and he wanted to play in a hockey environment."

Gagner says it was a tough decision not coming to London after the Knights' Memorial Cup run in 2005, but school was his priority.

"It was a little different last year, though," he said. "When I was back home in my minor-midget year, I had a rink in my backyard. I was able to skate whenever I wanted and, if I wasn't skating, I was watching hockey on TV. Last year, was a bit of a change. When I thought through my options, one of the things I missed most about Canada was to be able to turn on the NHL network and watch hockey when I wanted. I'm glad to be back."

Gagner is in his NHL draft year and you can bet scouts are drooling over his start. If they love his talent, they'll love his personality. Everything he says or does is focused on his team winning. He's one of those instantly likeable individuals who's mature beyond his years. Despite his flying start, he has his feet grounded in reality.

"My dad's always taught me you need to be intense out there and work hard every shift, but at the same time if you mess up, life goes on. I try and bring a positive attitude to the rink every day. Whatever happens happens. When you think that way, it usually works out for the best because you're not putting too much pressure on yourself. You can go out, relax and play. In the end, it's a game and it's meant to be fun."

He's a rinkrat. He's excited to be on the ice every day and he was excited when the Knights played three games in less than three days.

"That was great," he said.

See what we mean by the sheer joy of playing the game?

The Knights have struck it rich putting Gagner with two other first-year players -- Pat Kane, who they pursued as hard as they did Gagner, and David Meckler, who came to the Knights by way of Yale University. They've provided instant offence and instant entertainment.

"Especially me and Pat Kane, we've been playing together all year and we seem to have a lot of chemistry," Gagner said. "You throw Meckler in there and it's a good compliment. I just think all three of our games mesh really well together. (Kane) is able to dangle and make space for himself. I'm really the playmaker and Meckler's the goal scorer."

The Knights knew Gagner was an exceptional playmaker, but isn't there supposed to be a learning curve?

"Look at his statistics when he played minor midget. He had more than 100 assists one year," Hunter said. "He's the total package."

"The bottom line," says coach and dad Dave Gagner, "He loves the game."

Sam doesn't put expectations on himself.

"I didn't want to put too much pressure on myself or limit myself. I just came in with a clear mindset."

There'll be no big head.

"Because I played, his mother told him there would be good times and not so good times," said Dave. "My coach in Minnesota, J.P. Parise, would say 'Good game. But remember, they wrap fish with yesterday's newspaper.' "

Sam understands that.

"Right now, I'm just having fun." And it shows.


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