steps off the ice at the Kings’ El Segundo practice rink and glides into the locker room. He moves so smoothly, it’s almost as if he never left the slick sheet of frozen water. Like generations of French-Canadian players who came before him, Gagne has a penchant for fast skating, creative playmaking and crafty goal-scoring.
“We have that reputation,” Gagne said of his Quebec-born brethren. “We get drafted from the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League which has more offense, and is more open than playing in the Ontario league, Western league or at a university. It’s more of a skill game. You see a lot of goals in that league. Maybe you learn to play offensively more than defensively. That’s maybe why you see more French-Canadian players getting drafted for their offensive skills than as two-way players.”
Gagne admired the play of Mario Lemieux but while growing up in Quebec City, he fell in love with the Nordiques and the playmaking of Joe Sakic. When the Nordiques packed up and left Canada for Denver in 1995, Gagne was devastated.
“I was 14 years old and I was a huge fan,” Gagne said. “In Quebec City, you wake up every day and talk about hockey. That’s the first thing you see in the papers or on TV. When the Nordiques left, it was almost like the city died.”
Not long after the Nordiques died, Gagne’s career came to life. Like his favorite team, Gagne headed south of the border after being drafted in the first round (22nd overall) by Philadelphia in 1998. He went on to score 259 goals over 10 seasons in Philly. After one season (17 goals, 40 points) in Tampa Bay, Gagne signed a two-year deal with the Kings last July.
In Los Angeles, Gagne joins a number of players, coaches and administrators who had previously worked in the Flyers organization. Before putting his name on the dotted line, Gagne reached out to a couple of people with whom he shares that Philly connection.
“I talked to Justin Williams
and Mike Richards
,” Gagne said. “Before you sign, you have to picture yourself wearing the jersey and being around those guys. After talking to those guys, I started to feel comfortable with the Kings. At the same time, knowing the coaching staff and the management upstairs was a factor, too.”
For all Gagne’s ties to the Kings, there is nothing that compares to being wanted. The Kings wooed him and made him feel like he could make a difference in L.A.
“Last year, when I removed my no-trade clause, the Kings were in the mix,” Gagne said. “I knew this team was interested in me. That helped me decide to come here (as an unrestricted free agent).”
Williams sold Gagne on a combination no other NHL team could offer: a chance to play for a Stanley Cup contender while living in Los Angeles.
“Simon had played his whole career to get to a point where he was able to choose within a handful of teams,” Williams said. “I got in his ear and said, ‘We have a great team here. We have a team that is going to contend for the Cup and strive to get to the next level. And you get to live in Manhattan Beach. In itself, that is pretty special.”
Williams also played up the Philadelphia ties, convincing Gagne that joining the Kings would make for an easy transition.
“There is familiarity here,” Williams said. “I told Simon I thought it was a good fit. I enjoy it here and obviously, I really wanted him to join us. I forgot how much fun it is to play with him.”
While doing his due diligence, Gagne also reached out to a pair of French-Canadians – Eric Belanger and Ian Laperriere – who in the past had played for the Kings. They both told him Los Angeles is a great place to play and raise a family.
The presence of familiar faces in management positions held a lot of weight in Gagne’s final decision to come west, too.
“We have Ron Hextall working with Dean Lombardi upstairs, and they both worked for the Flyers,” said Gagne. “Those guys are there to talk with, if you need them. They will step in and help your game if they need to, but most of the time, they just let you play. They know what you can do and they won’t try to change your game.”
Why would anyone mess with success? Gagne has had two 40-goal seasons and, with seven 20-goal seasons, he could probably net 20 in his sleep.
“Yeah, I think I could,” he said with a chuckle. “If I stay healthy, 20 goals should be a goal every year. I will try to do that this year with the Kings and hopefully I’ll finish with more than that.”
Williams, for one, believes Gagne’s presence on the defensive-minded Kings’ roster gives the team the added firepower that can take it to the next level.
“We have a little bit more of an offensive mentality now,” Williams said. “He’s another guy who can put the puck in the net, which is something we needed. I knew Simon would give us an element of added respect. ”
Gagne has earned widespread respect in the hockey community. In 2002, he took a call from Wayne Gretzky, inviting him to be a part of Team Canada at the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.
“It’s always fun when you get the call from Wayne Gretzky, telling you that you have been picked and they believe in you,” Gagne said. “He called me and said, ‘Congrats, you’ve been picked to represent your country in the Olympics.’ It’s flattering, that’s for sure. Just thinking that the best player to ever play the game picked you to play on his team and represent your country. It was very special and something I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Helping Canada reclaim worldwide hockey supremacy – something many believe to be the country’s birthright – has been a career highlight for Gagne. At 31, with nearly 300 career goals, there are still other goals to shoot for.
“Hopefully,” Gagne said, “I will be able to top that by winning a Stanley Cup for the Kings.”