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Thanks to Dad, Gagner not a wide-eyed rookie

by Dan Rosen

Despite his age, the 18-year-old rookie brought to Edmonton the moxie of an off-the-ice veteran thanks to tutelage from his father.
Sam Gagner didn’t need any lessons on how to handle the accoutrements that come with being a professional hockey player. Despite his age, the 18-year-old rookie brought to Edmonton the moxie of an off-the-ice veteran thanks to years of tutelage from his father.

But there was no way dad, Dave Gagner -- yes, the same Dave Gagner who played 15 seasons in the NHL with stops in seven cities until retiring in 1999 -- could give his son the on-the-ice tutorial he’s receiving these days.

Keep your feet moving. Never hold the puck too long. Look out for the big checks. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t get caught with your head down.

“The guys are bigger and stronger and they play the body a lot more here,” Gagner said. “I need to continue to work on that side of my game to get stronger and faster. As I adjust to the pace it should help.”

That Gagner can even make such a statement now is a testament to exactly how far he’s come, and exactly how surprising his rise to NHL stature has been.

Picked sixth overall in the Entry Draft less than six months ago, Gagner appeared to be on his way to another year of junior hockey with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.

Except, he had other plans.

A diligent and amped-up summer training schedule produced a player who entered Oilers training camp primed to earn an NHL contract. Gagner, with all of one season of junior hockey on his resume, is now a candidate for the Calder Trophy.

“After getting drafted, this is the next step, and this was my goal throughout the summer,” Gagner said. “Coming to camp I wanted to be in as good of shape as possible and build up my strength to at least compete at this level. I did that.”

Gagner isn’t just competing. He’s been so good that he forced a somewhat reluctant Oilers General Manager Kevin Lowe to keep him in Edmonton after the first nine games instead of returning him to London for another year of maturation in the OHL.

It never was Lowe’s intention to hang on to Gagner. He was worried about stunting his growth with limited playing time on the NHL roster. Now, the Oilers are relying on him to pump in goals and produce points on a nightly basis.

Through 11 games Gagner has seven points, including six assists. To Lowe’s surprise he’s also averaging roughly 15 minutes of ice time per game.

“You almost look for reasons why he should go back,” Lowe said, “and he hasn’t shown many.”

Try none, but that doesn’t necessarily surprise Gagner, whose confidence was soaring heading into camp. He was coming off an MVP run in the Canada-Russia Super Series, which was preceded by him being the youngest member of Canada’s gold medal-winning team in the 2007 World Junior Championships.

In between, he also scored 35 goals and dished out 83 assists in just 53 games with the Knights while playing alongside Chicago Blackhawks’ phenom Patrick Kane.

“The fact that he played at the World Juniors as an underage kid, which from Canada is pretty rare, and how he played against the Russians, all of a sudden it increases your realization of his potential of him playing this season,” Lowe said. “There are many nights in which he’s been among our top three best forwards.”

Gagner targets his father’s career as a major factor in his quick development.

Gagner targets his father’s career as a major factor in his rapid development.

From the time he was a toddler, Sam was in NHL dressing rooms, watching NHL practices and sidling up to NHL players. He said he’s seen “how down to earth and humble they are even though they’re hyped up to be something really special.

“I know what it’s all about,” he added. “That helped me relax a little bit.”

It also helped him understand the highs and lows of the game, such as following his only game as a healthy scratch (Oct. 10 at Minnesota) with the first two-point game of his career (Oct. 12 against Vancouver).

“Being drafted is a huge accomplishment, but it’s just an opportunity to try out,” Gagner said. “I wanted to really work hard this summer to prove I belonged at this level. Obviously it has worked out so far.”

Which has left the Oilers team brass salivating about the kid’s future.

Lowe believes he’s already shown that he will be a major point-producer in the NHL for years to come, but he stopped at labeling him a future superstar because, “that’s a bold statement and it puts a lot of pressure on his shoulders.”

At least now there are zero doubts now that Gagner belongs in this League.

“He’s very smart, has a good understanding of the game, and maybe his best attribute is that he’s passionate about the game,” Lowe said. “Generally, it’s the great ones who have the ability, the sense, and the passion.”

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