On one of the Flyers smartest and most fortunate days in their history was when Simon Gagne slipped to 22nd in the 1998 draft because a number of teams were worried about a 160-pound player’s ability to withstand body contact.
Eye contact, however, was not a question from the start.
“When I sat with him, he would look right at me,” recalls Rick Tocchet, a Flyer winding down while Gagne was springing forth as an instant sensation in 2000. “He was taking it all in. I loved that; he was a sponge.
“He could have come in all cocky if he wanted to, maybe gotten away with it a little bit but he was respectful and when he hit the ice in practice, he would do some magical stuff.”
Pierre Gagne, who was the property of the AHL Quebec Aces when the Flyers bought the franchise as their development team in 1966, never made the NHL club. So a sense of entitlement was not among the many things he passed along to his son in the little Quebec City backyard rink.
“Growing up, looking at his scrapbook and stuff like that, I knew he had played the game, so he could teach me the game,” recalls Gagne. “The coaches in minor hockey helped me a little bit but my father had the biggest influence.
“He pushed me to another level, but it wasn’t you know, stupid. He made sure I had fun. I always felt I was going to play in the NHL, but maybe I’m going to be third line, fourth line, be just an average player. So I could not ask for more than I got out of my career.”
In a pre-game ceremony on Tuesday night, the Flyers will recognize the recent retirement of a player who scored 40 goals twice, 30 goals another two times, had 535 points in 691 Philadelphia games, and scored two of the more memorable goals in team history -- to climax a rally from a 3-0 series deficit in Boston in 2010 and in overtime to force Game 7 in 2004 during the conference finals against Tampa Bay.
For a once-160-pound lightweight, that is a ton worth celebrating about 11 seasons in Philadelphia during which one of the purest talents the franchise ever has had grew a lot more than just physically.
“He had come in as a goal scorer and had the attitude of one,” recalls Ken Hitchcock, who became coach of the Flyers at the beginning of Gagne’s fourth season “But all the goals in the world he was going to score weren’t going to make a difference if I couldn’t make him a player.
“As a 100-to-150-foot player, he was always on the move; on any 50-50 puck he was gone. But when you’re playing against top players you can’t play like that. I needed to see a guy that was committed to all three zones, not just from the red line in. You gotta play two hundred feet and without the puck. He had to stop on pucks, come back deep into the zone, and compete.
“He was a sensitive guy. But I kept pushing him, demanding and demanding because I thought that there was a higher level of compete there. When I knew he had bought in – and I think playing with Keith Primeau, who made the same adjustment, had something to do with it -- I bet you I had no more than five conversations with Simon the rest of the time we were together. I just backed off and let him play. He was dialed in, committed.”
In the end, it wasn’t that sacrifice that compromised Gagne’s scoring totals but his health. During his NHL career, he suffered six concussions, the most severe of which cost him 57 regular season games and all of the Flyers conference final run of 2007-08. But did his head hurt more then, than after some of those meetings with Hitchcock?
“Before the (2004-05) lockout, I was a good young prospect and maybe an All Star but wasn’t totally grown up as a player,” he said. “Afterwards, I felt that confidence Hitchcock had for me to be one of the leaders of the team.
“Hitch taught me how to get that and because of that I have a lot of respect for him. So if you ask me who was the best coach I’ve had, it was Hitchcock. I always wanted to be that kind of player and I was always a two-way guy. Hitch helped me take it to the next level.”
“But before the lockout, I must tell you, he was mostly a nightmare. At one point I almost asked to be traded, [I] didn’t think I could play for him.”
As it turned out, Gagne had the speed, vision and grit to play for anyone in any situation, and came to take most pride of all in his versatility. The ninth-highest goal scorer in Flyers’ history came to feel exactly like Bill Barber, who is No. 1.
What Gagne loved most about the game was to be relied upon.
“You want to feel that trust and when you get that trust, you want to show you deserve it and keep it,” he said. “To help stop a goal feels as good as to score a goal.”
Gagne had 54 points in 90 Flyers playoff games and the best of his Philadelphia playoff runs to two semifinals and a final was his last.