Gagner shoots for more than fun

MORRIS DALLA COSTA, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

For some, playing in the Euro Can Cup is a way of getting in shape for the upcoming National Hockey League, American Hockey League or Ontario Hockey League seasons.

For others, it's simply fun to compete at a high level.

Everyone has their own reasons for showing up each morning to skate for a couple of hours and then off-ice training.

Sam Gagner has a couple of reasons for participating, one of them very personal. It has everything to do with Shoot for the Cure, the charity chosen to receive money when this event concludes. Shoot for the Cure raises money for spinal cord research.

"There are a couple of reasons why I'm playing in this tournment," the Edmonton Oilers forward said. "When I was younger, I had a friend that broke his neck and he was pretty close to death. They told me he couldn't play competitive sports any more."

Gagner had a close look at what doctors could do with a life-threatening neck injury.

"This year, he's at the Canada Summer Games as the flagbearer and a rower. It's a pretty remarkable story and he's a big inspiration for me. He went through a lot and to get better. It's pretty remarkable," Gagner said.

Gagner's friend is Dan Aziz. He played with Gagner in the Oakville minor hockey system and as a 12-year-old, showed great promise as a hockey player.

Aziz was hurt wakeboarding and doctors weren't sure he would survive. He had what's known as a hangman's fracture. Only about 5% survive that.

Aziz did more than survive. He couldn't play hockey anymore but eventually took up rowing. His dream of playing in the NHL was destroyed but it was replaced by another dream, that of competing in the Olympics.

He's in his second year at Brown University. This year he won the Eastern Collegiate championship and competed at the 2009 Henley Regattta in England.

"That's why he's an inspiration to me and that's why whenever you can, you help a cause like this," Gagner said.

The Euro Can Cup is a four-team tournament beginning Tuesday at the John Labatt Centre when Linz from Austria take on the London Knights. Munich, Germany, and Zug, Switzerland, are the other two teams.

Aside from Gagner's attachment to the cause, the former Knight is looking forward to once again playing in front of London fans. Gagner was one of the players who played with the Knights last year when this team took its act on the road in Europe to play in this tournament.

"I'm hoping the rink is going to be packed. It's good hockey and the teams we are playing against are going to be really good teams," Gagner said. "We're expecting it to be a huge test for us. I'm sure the fans are going to get their money's worth.

"It was really exciting last year. It was a little different in that we were traveling a lot last year. We were pretty tired. We would play one day then travel the next. There wasn't much down time. It was exciting for us to see Europe and all the different facets. But coming back here there's a little more down time, a little more to recover. We'll be more prepared. I'm more excited this year because we are playing in London."

There's a lot of talent skating at those morning practices.

Since it is preseason tournament, there's always a concern that players will merely go through the motions.

Not so, Gagner says.

"The more you are careful the more chance you have of getting hurt," he said. "You've got to focus on getting ready for the season any way you can. For my game to be successful I have to move my feet, win battles, I have to play the game the right way. If I'm not playing that way, I'm only going to create bad habits for the season. So I have to get off to that right from the start."


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