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Being back in Philly emotional for Gagne

by Dan Rosen
PHILADELPHIA -- Simon Gagne stared at his phone, refusing to look out the window of the bus taking the Tampa Bay Lightning from Philadelphia International Airport to their team hotel in the wee hours of Thursday morning.

"It was weird," Gagne said Thursday afternoon. "I was trying not to think too much that I was back here."

But, Gagne was back in the city he called home for 10 seasons, the city where his professional career was born and blossomed, the city where he became a star in orange and black. Only, this time he was back in Philadelphia as a visitor, flying in to a familiar airport only to take a very unfamiliar bus ride to a hotel he had never once had a reason to stay in.

In fact, Gagne said that until now he had never once stayed in a hotel in Philadelphia. The only time he had stayed in one in the area was when he was a rookie and had to shack up at a Hampton Inn near the Flyers' practice facility across the river in Voorhees, N.J.

Life is different. At least for this season he's a Floridian, and the orange and black that he saw Thursday night inside Wells Fargo Center when the Lightning took on and beat his old team, 3-2, was for the enemy.

But, the loud and long standing ovation from the 19,592 fans 6:20 into the game was for Gagne. A video montage of his highlights in Philadelphia played on the scoreboard and the crowd responded with a classy ovation for one of Philadelphia's classiest athletes over the last decade.

Gagne, who played more than 19 minutes and finished only with a shot on goal, was still voted the game's first star.

"The first 20 minutes were really hard. I was tearing up," Gagne told reporters after the game. "I wanted to cry. I had to stop watching (the video) a couple of times. A lot of emotion. Everything started here. They showed my first goal and all the big goals. It's still hard to think about. They're always going to be in my heart. That's something I'll always remember."

Gagne was probably so emotional because he didn't want his relationship with the Flyers and the Philadelphia fans to end.

Soon after losing to Chicago in the Stanley Cup Final, he was looking forward to his 11th season in Philadelphia. He had no interest in leaving, so when the Flyers, who were staring at salary cap issues, first approached him about waiving his no trade clause, Gagne told them no.

"That was not the answer I think they were looking for," said Gagne, who had 524 points in 664 games with the Flyers.

Gagne was "a little bit" surprised when the Flyers asked him to waive his no-trade clause.

"Especially with the run that we had," he said. "I'm not the type of player that will look at what I did, but I thought that I did some great things to help the team to win and get to where we were at the end. But, I understand it's part of a business. They had a salary cap problem at that time. They had to make some move."

The Flyers indeed were in the unfortunate predicament of having to move a key piece to make their salary cap work. Gagne, with one year and $5 million left on his contract, was on the chopping block.

He said when the Flyers came back to again ask him again to waive the no-trade clause, he reluctantly said yes.

"You don't feel part of the team when something like that happens," Gagne said. "I was not going to see myself coming back knowing they were ready to trade me. I called my agent and said let's find the best scenario for me and figure out what we're going to do. We decided we were going to decide where I wanted to go."

Gagne said the Flyers were cool with that. The team gave him and his agent their blessing to seek out what they wanted and if they had a team in mind the Flyers would try to strike a deal to please Gagne and get their needed salary cap relief.

But, the idea made Gagne nervous.

"You have some teams in mind but we all know with the salary cap it could be a problem," he said. "It was in the middle of July so most of the GMs had made their signings. So I was a bit scared at that point, but we decided if I had a chance to be able to get traded to Tampa Bay, with the team we have here, the talent we have offensively, the coaching change and (GM Steve) Yzerman, I would be coming to a team that wanted to win. That felt pretty comfortable to me.

"That's how I ended up with the Lighting. It turned out pretty good for me."

The Lightning, who gave up defenseman Matt Walker and a fourth-round draft pick in exchange for Gagne, worked on so many levels.

For one, he was going to a team that already had strong offensive players in place such as Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, Ryan Malone and Steve Downie. Gagne could be the missing piece to Tampa's top six.

"He's still one of the great scoring leaders in this League," Stamkos told "He's scored close to 50 goals (47 in 2005-06), and other than the injuries he's a consistent point getter in this League. Those are rare. He adds the scoring to our lineup that we've been lacking the last couple of years, another guy that can go out there and score big goals and make big plays."

The Lightning also worked because Gagne knew he wouldn't be alone in the transition. He is one of 10 new players on the team, and even the ones that were left behind from the pre-Yzerman regimes still are learning new coach Guy Boucher's ways.

Everything from the system, the language, the philosophy and the way practices and morning skates are run, is different. Lecavalier, now in his 12th season in Tampa, is learning that just as much as Gagne.

"You know, that might be why it was a bit easier to come here," Gagne said. "When you get traded to a team and you're the new guy you need to learn from the start and most of the guys know the system, but with a new coach we have a new system and everybody has to learn the same thing. Everyone had the same starting point at camp."

Except, after going without a goal or an assist in Thursday's win, Gagne remains the only player in the Bolts' top six without a point.

"I expected that," Boucher said. "New guy coming in, different and wants to please so he has to get accustomed to everybody. It's not easy. The other thing, too, is he's got the most unselfish job on the power play, in front of the net. A lot of times you don't necessarily get points, you get phantom points. That's just a matter of time."

Gagne was hoping for his time to come Thursday night, but he'll happily take the two points and get out of dodge.

Tampa Bay doesn't return to Philadelphia until Nov. 18, and maybe that time he'll be able to look out the bus window.

"They're always going to be in my heart," Gagne said. "It's always going to be a special place for me."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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