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Former teammates go head-to-head for the first time tonight

by Marc Ciampa / Edmonton Oilers
Patrick Kane and Sam Gagner pose for a photo the day before the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. Kane was chosen first overall and Gagner was taken fifth. (photo: Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Four of the top rookies in the NHL get together tonight at Rexall Place and among them Chicago’s Patrick Kane and Edmonton’s Sam Gagner have a bit of a history with one another.Last season, Kane and Gagner came into the year somewhat off the radar when it came to the 2007 NHL Entry Draft but both players made the most of their opportunity with the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League and vaulted themselves to the head of the draft class.

“Going into the year, both of us weren’t really touted as top 10 picks but we were able to help each other out. We were competitive with each other but it was healthy,” said Gagner.

As teammates and linemates, the success of the pair was linked right from the start. At the start of the season, they decided along with Philip McCrae to wear their birth years on the back of their jerseys. Kane was 88, Gagner was 89 and McCrae 90.

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Now just over a year later, the two are facing off with one another in the National Hockey League. They will be meeting each other head-to-head for the first time with the exception of in last year’s World Junior Hockey Championship when Kane played for Team USA and Gagner for Canada.

“I don’t think I ever got out against him, maybe one or two times,” said Gagner of the WJC meeting. “This will be the first time we’re actually on the ice together.”

Both Kane and Gagner were rookies with the Knights last year and tore up the league. Kane led the OHL with 62 goals and 145 points. Gagner was fifth with 35 goals and 118 points.

“We had some chemistry right off the bat on the ice. We were able to put that together off the ice and develop a pretty good friendship,” Gagner noted.

Despite being teammates the two were also in direct competition – for draft positioning, OHL rookie of the year (which Kane won) and the league scoring title. Now this year, the competition is for NHL’s top rookie.

“It’s basically a healthy competitiveness. Nothing too bad, we like to compete with each other – we did it all last year too and I think it benefited both of us.”

The competition did result in high draft positions for both players. Kane ended up going first overall to the Blackhawks while Gagner went sixth to the Oilers. Both players came a long way after starting the year out of the top 10.

“Pat kind of knew he’d be in the top one or two (by the time the draft rolled around). I was kind of a little bit behind him but when we were drafted we were both really excited for each other,” said Gagner.

The improvement didn’t end there as now Kane and Gagner find themselves playing important roles on their respective teams.

“I was pretty excited to get an opportunity to try out for an NHL team. We both really didn’t know how it was going to go.”

Currently, Kane is leading the rookie scoring race with seven goals and 22 points in 21 games. He also leads the Blackhawks in scoring as well.

“I’m a little behind him right now but it’s a long season,” Gagner laughed.

The incredible success of Kane has not surprised Gagner at all.

“I knew he had the skill. He did some things last year that just amazed everybody. He’s got an amazing amount of talent and a lot of desire,” he said. “He’s got a lot of desire to be the best every game. He’s tough to stop but is a guy we need to watch.”

Gagner regularly checks the highlights on the NHL Network to see how his former teammate is doing.

“I talk with him every once in a while. I’ve said congratulations on a number of nights. He’s done so well this year. It’s good to keep in touch with him, see how well he’s doing.

“I think the biggest thing about him is he makes the players around him better,” Gagner continued. “It’s not just him you have to worry about when he’s out there. He’s able to use his linemates very well and has great vision and great hands.”

Patrick Kane has also been keeping a close eye on his friend and former teammate Sam Gagner this season.

“I see those shootout goals he has, he does the same move every time but it always seems to work. He’s got that move down. It amazes me how he gets the goalie that far out of the net and then has the whole open net to shoot at,” he said.

“I’m trying to get notes on that one and use it in my arsenal.”

Kane also noted how the two have had such intertwined careers to this point.

“We were pretty good buddies last year and kind of grew up together I guess,” Kane said. “We went through the draft, the prospect game, and the (OHL Western Conference) finals.”

Although Gagner shot up the draft charts to be taken sixth, Kane had very high praise for him.

“He’s an unbelievable player. I always thought going back to the draft that we should have went 1-2 but it’s easy to say now that he’s doing so well,” he said. “It’s nice to see him here and I think he’s happy in Edmonton so that’s good, too.”

Still, the thought of having both players in the NHL was unexpected for him.

“I think both of us last year thought we were going to win the Memorial Cup (this) year, it was that kind of talk. I don’t think either of us envisioned we’d be here this year, getting quality minutes and contributing to the teams,” Kane remarked.

It’s all business tonight between the two players but last night Kane and Gagner – along with Jonathan Toews and Andrew Cogliano – went out for dinner.

“We went out for a bit after, just hung out and got some ice cream and stuff. The Oilers picked it up; we’ll pick it up in Chicago,” Kane stated.

Kane also laughingly pointed out that the two rookies might be trading more than just goals tonight.

“If I line up with him there will definitely be some jokes. I know we’ve talked about dropping the gloves and going at it with each other so we’ll see what happens,” Kane remarked.

When asked to pick a winner to the hypothetical bout, there was no hesitation.

“I think you’ve gotta go with me, I’m the older guy.”
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