Philly gives Gagne 'moment he'll remember'

PAT MARTIN, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 9:32 AM ET

Are Philadelphia sports fans going ... gasp! ... soft?

There was a time when Santa Claus couldn't even show his face in town for fear of getting it smashed in with a snowball thrown by a member of the notoriously ruthless horde.

But on Thursday, for the second time in less than two weeks, the City of Brotherly Love showed just that - love - to a member of a visiting team.

The latest rousing reception came on Thursday night when former Flyers great Simon Gagne made his return to the town he called home for 10 years for the first time as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

This came 11 days after former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb returned to the area as a member of the Washington Redskins. McNabb was cheered as he was announced as the starter but booed upon taking his first snap under center in the eventual 17-12 Washington win.

The welcome wasn't mixed for Gagne, who received a smattering of cheers from the Wells Fargo Center crowd when he stepped over the boards for his first shift, as well as a hair-raising three-minute ovation when a video of his Flyers' career highlights was shown on the scoreboard during the first TV timeout about six-and-a-half minutes in.

"It was actually a nice gift from the Flyers," Gagne said after the game. "The ovation from the fans was great. Even in the warm-up when I jumped on the ice I got some cheers from the fans. It was a tough one to go through, a lot of emotions to go through. That video was something. They told me before the game they were going to do something and I was ready for it, but it was still hard to watch. There was a lot of emotion there."

Gagne, who said he would remember the moment for the rest of his life, even shed a tear during his tribute.

"He's a great player and obviously with the fans and the players standing up from both teams, he has the respect of everybody, so I was really happy for him," Tampa Bay center Vinny Lecavalier said.

"I raise my hat to him, it was a tough day. If that was me I might have been crying on that bench when I saw that video and people standing up there," Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher said after the game, making sure he raised his voice enough for Gagne to hear from across the visitor's locker room at the Wells Fargo Center.

The love for Gagne comes from his scoring 259 goals and 524 points in 664 games in the regular season for the Black and Orange, as well as 32 goals and 47 points in 90 playoff games. The memory of a nine-goal playoff that was pivotal in helping the Flyers to the 2009-10 Stanley Cup Final is not only fresh in the minds of Flyers fans, but former teammates.

"He was a leader," Flyers forward Scott Hartnell told The Sports Network on Thursday morning. "He showed up to play in big games and scored a lot of big goals for us, especially in last year's playoff run. He's a great guy to have in your room and a great guy to have on your team."

"He's obviously somebody that was great for us all of last year and he's probably one of the best Flyers of all time," second-year Philadelphia forward James Van Riemsdyke told The Sports Network. "It's always kind of tough to see a guy like that go, but at the end of the day that's the business side of hockey, with the salary cap taking over."

The Flyers, in a salary cap crunch this offseason, felt that the 30-year-old forward who is in the last year of a five-year $26.25 million contract, was the odd-man out.

"I was a little bit surprised by the trade, especially, with the run that we had," Gagne said. "I'm not the type of player that will look at what I did [numbers wise], but I thought I did some great things to help the team win and get where we were at the end. But you understand it's part of the business. They had a salary cap problem at the time and I was maybe the guy that [had to go]."

Gagne was reluctant to leave the place he had spent his whole career, refusing to waive his no-trade clause the first time the team asked, but when it asked again, he admitted to being ready to move on.

"You don't feel like part of the team when something like that happens and I wasn't going to see myself coming back knowing they were ready to trade me," he said. "I called my agent and said let's try to find the best scenario for me and see what we can do."

Now Gagne is trying to get used to playing for a Lightning team that boasts an impressive collection of offensive talent while facing a gauntlet of tests in his first three games with his new club.

His first game was in Tampa Bay, where he was pressing to impress his new fans. The second game was in his hometown of Montreal, and the third was in Philadelphia, where he played the first 10 years of his NHL career.

Gagne has been a minus player in all three games without scoring a point, but his new team is 3-0 to start the 2010-11 season.

"Any time the team wins, that's what you want," Gagne said.

"He's right in there battling," Boucher said. "It hasn't paid off for him but it's just a question of time. If he wasn't getting any chances, if he wasn't in the areas that hurt, paying the price, then I'd say we got to take care of step one and two before we get to step three. But he is right there, so it's just a question of time."

That time could be coming now that Gagne has gotten through an emotional stretch of games, giving him a chance to hopefully settle into his new environment.

"Today, him leaving this barn, and the people he has been with for so long, will probably be his new start," Boucher said. "He's never going to have a total closure because he's always going to cherish what he's lived here, what he's got from the people and what he's given to the people, but there's going to be enough closure now that he is with us now."

And apparently, given the love the Philadelphia fans showed their former star, he will always be with them too.


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