|Sam Gagner’s success can be traced back to the outdoor rink that graced the Gagner backyard throughout his childhood. His father, Dave Ganger, founded an outdoor rink-building company after leaving hockey in 1999.|
Dave Gagner played 946 NHL games with seven different teams, scoring 719 points. He was one the stars of the Minnesota North Stars’ run to the 1991 Stanley Cup Final, scoring 27 points in 23 games.
But more than anything, it was the countless hours spent on that home rink – built by his dad’s outdoor rink-building company – that honed the skills that delivered Sam Gagner to the Edmonton Oilers as a first-round pick this past June and assured he would be among the crown jewels of the 2007-08 rookie class.
After Dave Gagner left hockey in 1999, he started a company, Custom Ice Inc., which specializes in building permanent and portable ice-skating surfaces of various sizes. One of the first rinks built by Custom Ice Inc., was in the yard of the Gagner homestead in suburban Toronto.
That 50-foot-by-90-foot surface quickly became a rink of dreams for young Sam Gagner and his friends.
In fact, another pretty special hockey player can trace a good portion of his development to the outdoor shinny played on the Gagner estate.
John Tavares, the 17-year-old wunderkind who is destroying the competition in the Ontario Hockey League and is the consensus No. 1 pick for the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, used the rink almost as much as Gagner did.
“They could play five months a year on it and they would play 20, 30 hours a week on it," Dave Gagner says. “Just the two of them. Or they would have friends over and play three-on-three – all day Saturday, all day Sunday.
“It was a lot of trial and error. When they played out there it was mostly about skill. They didn't have any equipment on, so they weren't trying to run each other over. So that was their way of getting better, to work on their skills."
And work they did. As we all know, creativity is the bedrock of pond hockey, and you won’t find two more creative – or competitive – kids than Gagner and Tavares. Nightly, they tried to out-do each other with new wrinkles to their emerging games.
“We'd get pretty intense back there,” Sam Gagner says. “Those were one-goal games, and maybe it doesn't go your way. Especially with (Tavares), he would get pretty upset, maybe throw a right hook at me or something. He'd get pretty upset. It was a lot of fun.”
Sure, it was fun. But it was so much more, as well. It was a live-fire introduction to the tight-quarter skills necessary to succeed as an elite hockey player.
“The No. 1 thing we never talk about is how it developed their love for the game,” Dave Gagner says. “They have a passion for it and they want to play all the time. Just because of that, I think, the more they played the more they wanted it.”
As mentioned, Sam Gagner was selected with the sixth overall pick by the Oilers in 2007. He dominated the OHL in his only year there with London, and owned this summer’s SuperSeries, which pitted a junior-aged Team Canada against a Russian Under-20 national squad in an eight-game series. Now he is seeing regular time in the NHL, collecting two goals and nine assists in his first 26 appearances.
Tavares, meanwhile, is the most ballyhooed prospect to come out of the OHL since Eric Lindros. The Oshawa Generals star is dominating the league and obliterating OHL records, including those held by Wayne Gretzky. He took part in the SuperSeries as well, and likely will be a focal point of the Team Canada contingent that looks to defend its gold medal at the World Junior Championships, which start later this month.
Not too bad a showing for two boys who, just a few years back, were content to play some one-on-one shinny in the Gagner backyard.