Gagner gets his chance

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

HALIFAX -- If Eric Staal had stayed to play, he probably would have dedicated the game to his grandfather.

Instead, he's decided to go home to Thunder Bay for his grandpa's funeral and Team Canada is in effect dedicating today's quarter-final game against Norway to their absent teammate.

"The funeral is motivation to get to Quebec City," said coach Ken Hitchcock of the funeral that has taken Staal out of the lineup.

"Eric was really close to his grandfather and wanted to be there for his funeral. But he also wants to return for the semifinal. It's our obligation to get the team to Quebec for him to be able to play in it."

The departure of Staal has resulted in Sam Gagner, the NHL's youngest rookie this season with the Edmonton Oilers, getting into the lineup, and Jason Spezza moving up to the second line from the fourth line.

For Gagner, it's another chapter in a fairytale story, a chance to book-end a season which began by being named MVP of the Canada-Russia Super Series in August.

By getting into the lineup and playing a part in what could be a gold medal for Canada at the first world championship ever held in this country, Sam will have a chance to, well ... play it again.

"It's pretty surreal for me. A year and a half ago I was cut from the U-18 team. Then I win a gold medal at the world juniors and play in the Super Series and now I'm going to play for this team.

"I've been taking everything in and learning from these guys every day," said the 18-year-old who sniped 13 goals and had 36 assists in 79 games for the Oilers.

Nervous?

"No, excited," said Gagner.

"I came here hoping to get a chance to play. I'm not sure what my role will be or how much time I'm going to get, but, regardless, it's going to be a pretty big thrill," added the player who will switch from right wing to left wing on a line that will also include Patrick Sharp, Jason Chimera and/or Jamal Mayers.

Hitchcock is promising him some power play time as well.

And should there be a shootout, "I know how good he is," said the coach.

Staal didn't learn of his grandfather's death until after he scored four goals in Saturday's 10-1 win over Germany.

Gagner, who watched Canada's 6-3 win over Finland Monday from the press box, found out after the game that he was going to get to play in Staal's place.

"I've been taking in everything I can. I think I've learned from these guys every day. They've been great to me.

"This has been such a fun time and such a great experience and now I get to be on the team and be part of it. Getting into a game heightens the entire experience."

He says he doesn't think he's going to be rusty.

"I might be rusty if our practices weren't at such a high tempo. I think I'm prepared," he said.

"I think he'll fit right in," said Steve Staios, Gagner's teammate on the Oilers.

"He won't miss a beat. I think he's been itching to get in there. He's been working real hard at practice. He's definitely been coming to the rink to be prepared for this every day.

"If you know the guy, there isn't any way in your mind that he won't be able to stop in and play like he did in Edmonton all year. He's mature beyond his years."

Hitchcock said he's excited being able to give Gagner the chance.

"He's worked hard. This is a great opportunity for him and it'll be a great experience."

As for being able to move Spezza back to the second line in Staal's place with Martin St. Louis and Derek Roy, Hitchcock says, "I'm really happy for him."

Spezza says he's been trying to fit the Team Canada mould of checking his ego at the dressing room door, but it's been tough being demoted to the fourth line with dramatically reduced ice time.

"It's been a different role for me the last couple of nights. But I've been trying to do what they've been asking of me.

"It's been frustrating quite a bit. But I've tried to play smart in the role they've given to me. On Team Canada, some guys have to take a back seat sometimes. I'm happy how I've handled it.

"You want to help out. You may only be playing five or six minutes, but you want to make sure you're not a liability when you're out there."

Spezza was taken off the No. 2 line after the Norway game.

"Obviously I'd like to have a good game," he said.


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