The Philadelphia Flyers' veteran is one of those rare athletes who can beat you with his speed on an odd-man rush up the ice. He can beat you with a shot that could come from any angle. He can beat you with that innate vision he has that allows him to get into the right position a move or two before a play to make an impact. And he's also accountable on the defensive side.
"Until you get a chance to coach Simon Gagne, I don't think you appreciate all the little things he does," Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens told me a few days after Gagne scored his 20th goal in 44 games this season. "He's a world-class player on both sides of the puck. He's an important part of our power play ... and he's also a key part of our penalty-killing unit.
"He plays big minutes in all situations -- and he's a force in all situations for us."
The compliments aren't out of place when speaking about the 28-year-old, 6-foot-1, 195-pound forward from Ste-Foy, Quebec, who was the Flyers' first-round pick (No. 22) in the 1998 Entry Draft. He had 47 goals in 2005-06 and 41 the next season, winning team MVP both seasons, but last season he missed 57 games due to concussion issues.
|St. Louis Blues' Barret Jackman (5) reaches for the puck against Philadelphia Flyers' Simon Gagne (12) in the first period in an NHL hockey game Saturday, Jan. 31, 2009, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce) |
Would he be the same player when the 2008-09 season started?
He admits he learned about his own hockey mortality the hard way.
"Not being able to play so much last year, I realized that some things I'd taken for granted," he said.
Gagne paused as if to come up with just the right words to describe the mornings he would wake up with that familiar pounding headache -- and there was no pain pill to make it stop -- he felt while recovering from the concussions and the post-concussion symptoms that always follow before he continued: "Coming into the season I planned to be patient and maybe be back near full speed sometime after Christmas. Going eight months without playing, you just don't know if or when ...
"You'll never know how scared I was when I played in my first exhibition game. The speed that I once thrived in, well, in that game, I had trouble keeping up with the rest of the guys."
But the fast-skating, quick-shooting and oh-so-dangerous left wing magically regained his touch and feel for the game with the quickest start in his career, totaling 30 points in his first 21 games. In his first game after the All-Star break, he scored his 20th goal of the season, and he now has 47 points in 46 games.
We're coming up on Feb. 10. That's the date Gagne, after taking hits to the head by Florida's Jay Bouwmeester on Oct. 24 and Pittsburgh's Gary Roberts on Nov. 7, was knocked woozy for the third time, on a hit by Pittsburgh's Jordan Staal, and was shut down for the season with post-concussion symptoms. Gagne eventually learned that he didn't suffer three concussions, but that the first one in October never healed and was aggravated with each additional blow. Gagne says now he might have returned too quickly from the initial hit and wonders whether last season would have been different had he been more patient.
"But that's life as a professional athlete," he said. "You want to play. You almost have to play. Until you go through a tough time like that, you know nothing about concussions.
"Now I know the brain takes a lot of time to heal."
Pardon the pun, but Gagne is a heady player. He's smart, with that innate vision star players have.
"He's been a dangerous, dangerous player for the Flyers for a lot of years," St. Louis Blues forward Brad Boyes said. "He's dangerous anytime he's on the ice, in any situation.
"You know, he might be even more dangerous now than he was when he had 40 or more goals earlier in his career, because of the attention other teams give to Mike Richards and Jeff Carter now. He just kind of disappears, and then, boom, he'll put the puck in the net against you."
Long-time linemate Mike Knuble wondered if the Flyers could have beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals last spring had Gagne been in the lineup. Then he got back to reality, saying how much the team was happy to have Gagne back.
"We were lucky," Knuble said. "Where else could you pick up a world-class player in the summer to add to your team like we did when Simon said he was ready to come to us?
"What a smart player. What skills. What intangibles. We were thrilled to get all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring. But what a hole we had to fill after Gags went out of the lineup."
Said Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren: "I remember the first time I saw him in juniors; he was a skinny little guy with speed. I remember when we brought him into minicamp before his first training camp. He just looked like a hockey player. He was light on his feet, he handled the puck really well, and was calm.
"And all of a sudden this skinny little runt grew into a nice-sized go-to player for us."
Obstacles are something every athlete has to overcome. Gagne has a little voice in his head that seems to pop up every time he needs a pep talk.
"The voice says, 'Never quit. Believe in your dreams,'" he said. "I think from the time I was on skates for the first time when I was 2, my dad told me that ... at least it was the voice of reason for me. I'd rather not say the name of the coach, but when I was 14-15, I remember that coach telling me I was too small, too skinny to play at the next level. My dad's words carried me past that obstacle and I heard them again last summer when I was preparing for this season."
Pierre Gagne, Simon's father, has more than a voice of reason. He's a policeman in Quebec City and obviously has a voice of authority. Nicole Gagne also was a voice of authority and reason around home when Simon's mother wasn't working as a life insurance salesperson.
"They were very important trying to keep my spirits up when the doctors told me I couldn't play," said Gagne. "My parents have always been there for me."
Being able to fully carry out instructions on the ice, the quick-thinking Gagne got some pretty good advice from doctors on the dangers of post-concussion syndrome, but he went to former players to see what they did for their symptoms -- like former teammate Keith Primeau, who had to end his career because of the continuing difficulties he faced due to concussions.
I remember the first time I saw him in juniors; he was a skinny little guy with speed. I remember when we brought him into minicamp before his first training camp. He just looked like a hockey player." - Paul Holmgren on Simon Gagne
"What I learned is that I never lost my memory of the hits or anything," said Gagne. "I never had trouble sleeping. The dizziness I'd feel once in a while wasn't debilitating like it is for some guys who have had concussions. That made me look at the recovery as a challenge or another obstacle to overcome, not a life-threatening situation."
Gagne was finding answers in a world of concussions where there are often no easy answers.
One of the remedies for his neck pain, dizziness and headaches came when he was watching a health segment on the news and saw a special treatment called prolotherapy that was being used at the Magaziner Center for Wellness and Anti-Aging in Cherry Hill, N.J. Flyers doctors gave him the go-ahead to see Dr. Scott Greenberg at the center, and he diagnosed the Bouwmeester and Staal hits as more whiplash than concussions.
Greenberg injected Gagne with two kinds of anesthetics and an inflammatory agent. The inflammatory agent tells the body there is an area that needs repair. The body then sends white-blood cells that help remove debris from the area and repair damaged tissue, tendons and ligaments.
And now Gagne doesn't have to think what might have been if he lied to the doctors about how he felt and tried to play in the playoffs last spring. He's glad he took the time off -- and he looks around the locker room and knows he wants to be a big part of a playoff run this season.
"I watched how they pulled together and made a run at it last spring," said Gagne. "If you look around here, we have players who are going to be here for a long, long, long time. It's not only exciting for this year, but for the future beyond that.
"And I want to be a big part of that."
You might not where you'll next see him on the ice, but wherever it is, it'll be an important place for the Flyers.