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MELTZER: Simon Says...

Flyers contributor continues Hall of Fame week with a look at Simon Gagne's career

by Bill Meltzer @BillMeltzer / philadelphiaflyers.com

Flyers contributor Bill Meltzer recently conducted a poll on his personal Twitter page, asking Flyers fans which player they'd most like to see be the next to be inducted into the Flyers Hall of Fame. Among 3,911 respondents, the top vote-getter was Simon Gagne (1,763 votes, 45.6%), followed by Mark Recchi (1,064 votes, 27.2%) and then Rick Tocchet (982 votes, 25.1%).

Clearly, even five years after the two-stint Flyers left winger announced his retirement as an active player, he remains a beloved figure among Philadelphia fans. The feeling is mutual.

"I didn't win the Stanley Cup with the Flyers,but I really loved my career there. Loved my teammates, the city, the fans, Mr. Snider. I was lucky to play there. Lots of happy memories," Gagne said on May 17, 2020.
 
A center in junior hockey and early in his NHL career, Gagne soon switched to left wing at the NHL level. The speedy and highly skilled forward quickly emerged as an NHL impact player, both with and without the puck.
 
As a Flyer, Gagne scored 264 regular season goals and 540 regular season points. In the postseason, he scored 32 goals and 47 points. There were times he made the game look easy. It wasn't always that way.
 
As a rail-thin 16-year-old he played for the Beauport Harfangs (QMJHL) for future NHL head coach and former NHL player Alain Vigneault. Gagne recalls that playing for Vigneault as a teenager was a very different type of experience that anything he'd been used to before in hockey.

"Not too many hockey players were making the jump from Midget AAA to Junior Hockey at 16 years old. Maybe once in a while. I was the only player that was 16 years old on my team. Alain was a tough coach. He was hard on players, but he was just coming back from a couple years [as assistant coach] with the Ottawa Senators in the NHL," Gagne recalls.

As an NHL head coach, Vigneault has developed a reputation for being laid-back off the ice and demanding but fair-minded as a coach, Gagne said that, during his junior hockey days, Vigneault took on much more of a hard-driving demeanor with the teenagers on his team.
"Nowadays, he's totally different. He totally changed. I am sure he is still demanding on players. but I think he is involved in the game the right way. You could see he is more a player coach now. He understands what the players need and what the players want and like about a coach," he said.

Gagne concedes that he found Vigneault intimidating back when he was 16. "I was pretty nervous and a little bit of scared of him at first, When I saw him, a big guy that was keeping himself in good shape. He was intimidating when you met him for the first time. Like I said, he was a tough coach on players. For me at 16 years old, that was pretty much the first time I had that type of coach. When you play minor hockey, the coaches are really easy on you. I was that type of players that I didn't really need to be coached when I was younger. That was the first time I knew I had a big challenge in front of me when I jumped and played for Alain," Gagne said.

In hindsight, Gagne realizes that Vigneault was simply trying to introduce his young players to the realities of what it takes to play pro hockey. It was tough love, and Gagne knows now that he needed it.
 
"What was good with Alain, I remember when I was in juniors, was knowing the game, the system, the way he wanted us to play. If something needed to be changed, he was able to do that. Like I said, I was 16 years old. That was the first time I had a pro coach. He just came back from Ottawa Senators. Just a year before that he was with Ottawa. He had those new tools. We were doing a lot of videos, something I didn't really do before that. A lot of video, a lot of structure on his approach that I was not used to," Gagne recalls.

"We were a bunch of kids. We didn't know what life's really like outside of hockey. You're dealing with a bunch of guys that like to go out and stuff like that. That aren't too serious about hockey sometimes. He had to deal with that, but he was really tough on us. To me, I felt he had a really strong power over us. I was really scared of Alain when he was yelling at us, but I was 16 years old. I didn't really know what to expect. To me, now as I look back today, all of that kind of prepared me for the NHL. If we could take a little bit more time, maybe I could explain to you what the meeting was with Alain at the end of the season. That meeting kind of opened my eyes and said, 'Okay, I understand what he was doing with me this year and now I have to be a little more professional and put myself in better shape if I wanted to play in the NHL."
The next season, Gagne moved on to the Quebec Remparts. Vigneault was soon back in the NHL, getting his first head coaching opportunity in the league behind the Montreal Canadiens' bench.
 
Over the years, Pierre Gagne was the person who had the most influence over Simon's love of the game. After Gagne's father moved on from hockey, he became a police officer in Quebec City. However, Pierre Gagne was his son's first and most trusted hockey coach and most ardent supporter.

Pierre Gagne as a teenager played forward for the Quebec Jr. Aces. He attended the first Philadelphia Flyers/Quebec Aces training camp in 1967 as a tryout player but was not offered a pro contract. He then moved on with his life, but the game always had a special place in the family patriarch's heart and he passed that love along to his children.
 
The elder Gagne was particularly close with former Junior Aces teammate Simon Nolet, who went on to play for the Flyers' first Stanley Cup winning team and then, many years later, became a highly successful scout with the Quebec Nordiques and Flyers.
 
Simon Gagne grew up as a fan of the Nordiques and was a junior player for the QMJHL's Quebec Remparts, Led to believe the Montreal Canadiens would select him in the first round of the 1998 NHL Draft, Gagne was excited by the thought and then crestfallen when the Habs bypassed him and the Colorado Avalanche -- who had three picks in the first round -- opted for three other players.
 
Finally, the Flyers selected Gagne 22nd overall.
 
"Only after I got drafted, I found out that Simon Nolet did push a lot for me; for the Flyers to draft me. But that's the only time I knew the Flyers was, at one point, interested in drafting me. Because, at that time, with all the teams at that time -- I think it was pretty much the same with all the teams -- but the only team, I think, then was the Flyers... the other teams I don't remember... but most of the teams I had at least one one-on-one or meetings with the management," Gagne recalls.
Being selected by the Flyers turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to Gagne. He loved playing for the team and also fell in love with the Flyers fanbase and the city of Philadelphia.
 
During Gagne's Flyers career, he compiled an extensive list of accomplishments: a member of NHL All-Rookie team in 1999-2000, two-time winner of the Bobby Clarke Trophy as team MVP (2005-06 and 2006-07), Pelle Lindbergh Award winner as the team's most improved player of the 2000-01 season, two-time NHL All-Star Game selection (2000-01, 2006-07), two-time 40-goal scorer (2005-06 and 2006-07) on a line with Peter Forsberg and Mike Knuble, Olympic participant for Team Canada in 2002 (gold medal) and 2006, three-time Toyota Cup winner as the Flyers player with the most three-star selections in the 2001-02, 2005-06 and 2006-07, and an important member of the 2009-10 team that reached the Stanley Cup Final as well as the 1999-2000 and 2003-04 squads that fell one win short of the Finals.
 
In the playoffs, Gagne scored three of the biggest goals in the post-2000 history of the Flyers' franchise. In 2004, Gagne tallied the overtime goal in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Final to force a seventh and deciding game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In 2010, Gagne played through injury to score the overtime goal in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals that started the Flyers historic comeback from a three-games-to-zero deficit against the Boston Bruins. In Game 7, the Flyers trailed 3-0 in the first period only to storm back and win, 4-3. Gagne capped it with the series-winning goal scored with 7:08 remaining in the third period.
 
Gagne had bad luck with injuries for much of his Flyers career, especially with concussions, groin and shoulder issues. Some of his best playoff performances, in fact, came in games where he was questionable to play due to significant injuries.
Gagne grew so fond of playing for the Flyers that he was heartbroken both times he left the organization, In the summer of 2010, he reluctantly waived a no-trade clause and enabled the organization to make a trade with Tampa Bay that was entirely driven by salary cap necessity.

"That wasn't what I wanted, but I learned that hockey is a business. Most players don't spend their whole career with one team. There's some things at the end that I wish were different but most of the memories I have are happy ones," he said in 2016.
 
After injury-riddled stints with the Lightning and Kings (with whom he won the Stanley Cup in 2012), Gagne returned to the Flyers during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Although no longer the same caliber of player he was earlier in his career, Gagne played reasonably well in his second stint.
 
Gagne sat out the entire 2013-14 season, although there was some interest from NHL teams. He later said that it took him some time to rediscover the drive it takes for a player -- especially for one approaching his mid-30s with a lengthy injury history -- to prepare himself both mentally and physically to play.
 
Believing he had rekindled the fire, Gagne accepted a tryout invitation from the Boston Bruins for their 2014-15 training camp. Accepting a fourth-line role, Gagne dressed in 23 games for the Bruins (three goals, one assist). However, his heart grew heavy for personal reasons.
 
The prognosis for liver cancer-stricken Pierre Gagne, 68, became grim. Simon could no longer focus on hockey. All he wanted at this point was to be by his father's side until the end. Gagne took a leave of absence from the team. He elected not to return after Pierre passed away on Christmas Day and eventually announced his retirement.
 
On a much happier note, Gagne also realized during the 2013-14 seasons and again after leaving the Bruins that his greatest joy in life comes from his family and that having more time with his wife and children meant more to him at this point in his life than being an NHL player. He retired on September 15, 2015.
 
Two months later. the Flyers honored Simon Gagne's career with a special tribute night. Subsequently, he donned a Flyers uniform once again to play in the 50th Anniversary Game.

Since that time, he's returned to his roots, along with wife Karine and children Matthew (age 11) and Lily Rose (age 9).
"We've been back in Quebec since the end of my career. Kids go to school here now. It's been four or five years now," he said on May 17, 2020.

Gagne turned 40 years on Leap Day 2020. He has kept himself in good physical condition in the years since retirement but not to the same level as demanded for active players.

"I enjoy the life after hockey. Good food. I like red wine and stuff like that. I've been still playing once in a while, once or twice a week, hockey before the coronavirus happened. Maybe twice a week at the gym, too. Just like I said, it's a little bit something, but I am far away from the shape I had when I was playing. I could be ten pounds overweight now," he said with a chuckle.

While Gagne has settled back home in Quebec, he said that he would love to see the Flyers win the Stanley Cup for the fans of the team. That's especially true now that his long-ago junior coach, Alain Vigneault, is behind the Flyers' bench.

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