“He said ‘I’ve got good news for you,’” Gagne recalled. “‘I just signed you a centerman, Peter Forsberg, and he’s going to play with you.’”
The result was a 2005-06 season where Gagne scored 47 goals and 79 points, giving him what would be his best season of a 14-year NHL career that officially concluded when Gagne announced his retirement Tuesday morning. The Quebec native had been off the ice since leaving the Boston Bruins last December 10 to be with his ailing father Pierre, who lost a battle with liver cancer last December 26. Gagne had been out of the NHL the year before, and he knew when he left the Bruins that he’d probably played his last game. But it was one of those situations where life and family comes before hockey.
“I was OK with the decision,” he said. “It was the right move to do. I was really happy that I was able to stay right to the end with my father.”
Although Gagne concluded his career in Boston and won a Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2012, the legacy of his 14-year NHL career will probably be the 11 he spent with the Flyers, who drafted him 22nd overall in 1998. Simon Nolet, the Flyers’ longtime eyes and ears in the province of Quebec, pegged Gagne as one of the top ten players in the draft despite skepticism from others. When the 22nd spot rolled around, the Flyers were shocked he was still there.
"Usually you're bullbleeping about that," Clarke told the Philadelphia Daily News a year after the fact. "For once, we really meant it."
The Flyers sent Gagne back to juniors for another year of seasoning, and he responded by carrying the Quebec Remparts to the QMJHL finals with a 50-goal, 120-point season. He also scored seven goals in seven games for Canada at the World Junior Championships that season.
Gagne then came to camp in 1999, impressed the front office, and earned a roster spot at the age of 19 as the team’s second-line center. His 20-goal, 48-point season was the best for a Flyers rookie since Mikael Renberg’s franchise-record rookie season in 1993-94, and it was the best for a teenager since Eric Lindros’s 75-point debut the year before that. And after the Flyers came within a game of the Stanley Cup Final that season, Gagne became part of the group that received the torch from the Flyers core that had so much success in the mid- to late-1990s, and carried it on into the new century.
Gagne received much hype as he started his professional career, but he lived up to it. He was an All-Rookie selection in 2000, an All-Star in 2001 and a member of Canada’s Olympic squad for the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City. The gold medal he won there was one of the highlights of his career, even though it meant defeating then-teammate and linemate Jeremy Roenick and his Team USA in the gold medal game.
“[Roenick] was almost like a big brother to me, so it was really special facing each other for the gold medal,” Gagne said. “I know how big it was for Team USA to go into the final in the United States. I was a young kid, 21 years old, playing against those guys and playing with those stars on my team. It’s always special to play against your teammate. He was really disappointed, but he was really happy for me when we shook hands at the end when we won the gold medal.”
The 2002-03 season was plagued by injuries, but Gagne picked up right where he left off the following year and again found himself helping the Flyers to the Conference Finals in 2004. His overtime goal in Game 6 versus Tampa Bay is one of those that live in Flyers lore, even though the team was ousted in Game 7.
When the NHL returned to the ice in 2005, Gagne found himself playing with Forsberg and Mike Knuble. He and Forsberg especially took off like a pair of rockets, feeding off one another for two of the best individual starts to a season in Flyers history. Gagne scored seven goals over the first five games and through one stretch in November scored another seven over four games. He had 17 points over 10 games in October and was at 41 points through 29 games by Christmas. When the season concluded, Gagne had 47 goals; 27 of those were assisted by Forsberg, and 18 of those 27 were primary assists.
“That’s the best line I played on,” Gagne said. “If you look at the numbers, the numbers don’t lie. When I got the call in the summer from Clarkie… at that point I knew that my career was going to change. I had a good season before that, but I had a different role. At that point I knew that I was going to be a top left winger playing with a player like that. I knew that I was just going to have to show up to camp in good shape and in good mind and it clicked right away. Sometimes you could play with the best player in the world and it doesn't click. This is almost like it was meant to be and it was a perfect mix for that line. And off the ice, those two guys are good friends of mine now and they’re always going to be really close to my heart.”
Gagne continued to be a solid contributor to the Flyers for four more seasons, including a 41-goal, 68-point All-Star season in 2006-07 and a 74-point campaign in 2008-09. He called the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs his best memory as a Flyer, and he created memories for countless Flyers fans with two clutch goals in the storied Conference Semifinal series vs. Boston – an overtime winner in Game 4 that continued the series, and the eventual game-winning goal in Game 7 that completed the team’s improbable comeback from a 3-0 series deficit.
“Just the way things happened, breaking my foot, coming back in game 4 and scoring the OT goal, and [then] going down [3-0] in that Game 7 and coming back and scoring that power play goal… it was a team effort, not because I scored the game winner that we won the game, but that year was really special.”
That summer, the Flyers faced a cap crunch and made the difficult decision to alleviate it by trading Gagne to Tampa Bay. After a year there he signed with Los Angeles, and after struggling with a head injury in 2011-12, he finally got to raise the Stanley Cup with the Kings.
“It’s a dream of all players that play in the National Hockey League,” Gagne said. “But when you take that Cup, all the sacrifice you did when you were younger, all the injuries you had to go through, all the ups and downs and all the hard times, it’s the best feeling in the world.”
Gagne has sacrificed enough for a while, so he plans on spending the next couple months with his family. He has three kids now, the youngest of which is four months old, so the plan is to stay home in Quebec City and be a dad.
“My son started to play hockey two years ago so I’ll jump in and try to help him on that,” Gagne said. “After that I don’t know, I’ll sit back and see what is offered to me. Definitely, I would like to be involved in hockey. It doesn't matter what position or whatever. I did do some TV a couple years ago, something that I would like to go back and do. If you get a call from a team that’s got a job open, that would be interesting for me to do, to still be involved in the game and know what’s going on even if you're not playing.”