By Corey Masisak - NHL.com Staff Writer
NEWARK, N.J. -- Simon Gagne sat in his stall in the visiting dressing room Friday at Prudential Center for longer than he needed to and answered more questions about a potentially sensitive subject than some players might.
It has been a long six months for Gagne, who missed the final 47 games of the regular season and the first 16 playoff games for the Los Angeles Kings with a concussion. It was not the first of his career -- and not the first that kept him out for a significant amount of time.
To be back in this situation, practicing with the team and preparing for his third game since returning from the injury and the Kings one victory away from claiming the Stanley Cup, was something to relish.
"To me, I take it as my last chance," Gagne said. "I'm at this point right now, and I've been in the League for 12 years. I'm always going to remember my first year in the League, losing a Game 7 here [with Philadelphia] against those guys. Being one game away from the Stanley Cup Final, you think you're going to have many years in front of you. Then 10 years after that, I had a chance to go in the Final. It is one thing to get there, but it is not guaranteed that you're going to win it. That's what happened in 2010 [with Philadelphia]. Having this chance this year, and being in that position it is the closest I've been. Is it going to be my last shot? Maybe not, but I'm going to approach it like it might be."
The hit that felled Gagne in late December was not a huge one. He said he was trying to get a bouncing puck to calm down and took a little too long. His head was down when a member of Phoenix Coyotes collided with him, and he took a shoulder to the side of his face.
Gagne finished the first period but soon realized something wasn't right. He has a longer documented history of concussions than most NHL players, so he and the Kings decided to proceed with caution.
While Gagne had experience dealing with this type of injury, each one can produce different symptoms and different circumstances. He credited the Balance Disorders Institute in Beverley Hills, Calif., and a Los Angeles-based chiropractor for helping with his treatment.
Teammates who have had concussions, like defenseman Willie Mitchell, talked to Gagne about dealing with the injury. Gagne answered questions from teammates who haven't experienced one, helping to educate them.
"I think the main thing was that the team and the medical staff, the doctors -- they give me the time to rest and come back 100 percent," Gagne said. "I was skating in March and I was feeling pretty good, but not good enough, not 100 percent. I was maybe 95 percent, but that was not good enough for me, for the team, for the doctors. I have to say in the past I went back and played at 95 percent with that type of injury. I think the medicine is getting better. The doctors are more aware of that injury, and I think you are going to see guys take more of the time to come back. We're starting to learn a little bit about it."
Gagne started skating, but he didn't receive full clearance to join the team for practice until after Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals against Phoenix. He was finally ready to return to game action for Game 3 against New Jersey in the Stanley Cup Final.
"After about three weeks after the injury, I knew it wasn't really similar to what I had in the past. It wasn't that bad," Gagne said. "Because of my [history] with this injury, we took like double caution with the doctors and make sure that I get the right rest, the right exam to make sure everything was fine. That's what we did, and now I have to say I give total credit to our doctors here in L.A., the medical staff -- they really put me in the best situation for me to get back and be 100 percent.
"The more we kept playing and the more we kept winning in the playoffs, I was like, ‘Oh, maybe there is going to be a chance for me to come back and test it before next season.' I'm really happy the boys gave me the chance here to do it. I know it is hard to get here, and I'm really happy to be part of it again."
Gagne has played both games on the fourth line. He saw only 6:39 of ice time in Game 3; that total increased slightly to 7:49 in Game 4. Later in that contest, coach Darryl Sutter put him on the second power-play unit.
He nearly had a huge impact in Game 4 despite the cautious approach to his playing time. Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur stopped Gagne's attempt on a breakaway, and later Gagne slipped a pass to Trevor Lewis on a 2-on-1 that ended up being inches from resulting in a goal.
Gagne a four-time 30-goal scorer during his 12 NHL seasons, said he can feel his game coming back.
"[I feel] a lot better -- more prepared, more into it," Gagne said. "It is true -- you get the feeling when you are practicing and you're with the team, but until you get in the game it is different. Now after two games, I'm feeling more comfortable, more comfortable on the ice. Physically, I feel better too. Slowly I am playing better and more in the game and started to play a little bit like I can. I know there is place for improvement. I think last game was a step in the right direction, but we lost so that is not good enough."
Gagne has another year on his contract with the Kings, but being able to play at the end of this season should make the coming offseason better for both him and the organization. He has scored 20 goals seven times in his career, and a healthy Gagne could make the Kings even more formidable in 2012-13.
For Gagne, it could mean a lot less anxiety before the start of next season.
"The way things was going, I was confident I was going to be OK, but if you had to wait the whole summer before playing a game, it is a long wait," he said. "It could have been a long summer to think about it, maybe putting a little bit of stress on yourself. Not that the type of stress you want to have in the summer -- summer is the time to get ready for next season and relax and recover and get ready. For me to come back and be able to test myself and play and feeling good about it, it was something that I was really looking forward to."
Los Angeles is one victory from claiming the Cup, and a big part of the Kings' success to this point has been the contributions at key points from just about anyone on the roster. Seventeen players have scored a goal for the Kings, and role players such as Dwight King, Colin Fraser and Alec Martinez have had important ones -- just like the stars on the team have.
Gagne might just be happy to be back on the ice with his teammates and back in the dressing room, but it would be an incredible ending to an amazing run for the Kings to have him contribute at a key moment before this series is over.
"He's a special player," linemate Jordan Nolan said. "He can make a play almost any time he's on the ice. Just look at the last game; he made two big plays for us with the breakaway and the 2-on-1 with [Lewis].
"Obviously, he's a pretty gifted player. You can tell he's just starting come around. He looked pretty good out there in practice today, so you know he's going to be going tomorrow. You could tell last game he was starting to pick up little things where he had left off."