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Q & A: Sam Gagner at the Worlds

by Marc Ciampa / Edmonton Oilers
When Sam Gagner was named as the extra forward for this year's World Hockey Championships in Quebec City and Halifax he was told that he would not see any game action unless an injury occurred to one of the other 13 forwards.

On Tuesday, Eric Staal had to leave the team suddenly to attend his grandfather's funeral. As a result, Gagner will get the opportunity to play in one game - a crucial quarter-final match-up against Team Norway.

At age 18, Gagner becomes the fifth-youngest Canadian to play at the World Championships. The only players younger were Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Paul Kariya and Patrice Bergeron. 

On Tuesday night, Gagner took the time to speak with about making his World Championships debut against the Norweigans on Wednesday (1:30 p.m. MST on TSN).

Edmonton Oilers' Sam Gagner, left, celebrates the team's game-winning goal as Calgary Flames' Dion Phaneuf, right, and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff, of Finland, react during third period NHL hockey action in Calgary, Alberta, Saturday, March 29, 2008. The Edmonton Oilers beat the Calgary Flames 2-1. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Jeff McIntosh)
Q: The last year and a half has certainly been crucial to your development as a professional hockey player: from the World Juniors to the Super Series to the NHL and now the World Championships.

A: It’s been unbelievable for me. I think I’ve really developed a lot over the last year-and-a-half, two years or so. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen coming into this year but I came to camp with an open mind, willing to work for a spot. I was given some opportunity and I really just tried to run with it.

I’ve got to thank the coaching staff and my teammates. They were great to me all year, made me feel really comfortable and helped me to develop. It made it a really fun year for me and helped me to get a lot better.
Q: This past season you really made your mark at the NHL level, particularly near the end of the season when you had 28 points in your last 28 games. Was it something you changed about your game or was it simply having more opportunity with Shawn Horcoff out due to injury?

A: I think it was a lot of things. I feel I was a different player at the end of the year than I was at the beginning. I learned a lot from my teammates and through my coaches. I felt a lot more comfortable with my game at the end of the year.

I was also given an opportunity with Horc being out. You never want to see a player like that go down, it really hurts your team. But at the same time it was a big help for me. I just wanted to try and run with it and fill the void as much as possible. I was given a chance to play with some great linemates and play some more minutes and it really helped me a lot. The team was able to go on a little bit of a run there at the end. I can speak for everybody and say that was a lot of fun for us. We’re looking forward to building on that for next year and coming out with a better result.

Q: That run at the end must have really helped, especially considering it’s such a young team and essentially you were able to grow up together last season.

A: Oh yeah, for sure. Edmonton’s a winning organization, it always has been and that’s the standard they’ve established over the years. We’re a group of young guys who really enjoy winning and being part of a winning atmosphere and we wanted to bring that back.

The veterans on the team really taught us a lot about what it takes this year. A lot of those guys were at the Stanley Cup Finals two years prior and they learned what it takes to win. They taught us a lot about that.

The young group coming up had a lot of fun, we really enjoyed ourselves. The chemistry was felt throughout the year and at the end we were playing our best hockey.

Edmonton Oilers center Sam Gagner (89) celebrates his goal during the second period of a hockey game against the Atlanta Thrashers in Atlanta, Sunday, Jan. 20, 2008. (AP Photo/Stanley Leary)
Q: What has your experience been like so far at the Worlds? Skating with guys like Eric Staal, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza and others?

A: It’s been a lot of fun. You always want to be playing and want to show what you have in a game but my experience so far has been great. Just getting to learn from some of these guys – how to prepare for not only games but practices as well. How they go about their business, their work habits and professionalism they show is something you can really learn from. Just being around these guys, the atmosphere has been great for me.

I think getting a chance to play in a game coming up here will only further that and I’ll learn a lot more from these guys.

Q: Has it been what you expected so far?

A: I was told that I probably wasn’t going to get a chance to play. I was fine with that, I just wanted to come in here with an open mind and try to take something out of it. So far, it’s been great. The guys have taught me a lot; it’s been everything I could hope for.

There’s a great group of character guys in here. They’re the best players in the world and they’ve got a lot of talent but they still have time for people. They’re still great workers and great people. For me to be able to learn from that at a young age will do wonders for me going forward.

Q: In the past five weeks you’ve only played two games – a pair of exhibition games in Quebec City at the end of April. Do you feel there might be some rust getting into the game on Wednesday?

A: No, I felt pretty good in practice. Obviously practice is a whole different animal from a game but the way Hitch (Team Canada Head Coach Ken Hitchcock) runs his practices, they’re pretty up-tempo with a lot of game situations. I really had to test how sharp I was and as the tournament’s gone on I’ve felt better and better in practices.

Before the tournament I hadn’t really played at a high level for a couple weeks. Those exhibition games were huge for me to get my tempo back and my game situation skills back. At practice I’ve just tried to work as hard as I can to stay sharp and be ready for when the time comes.

I’ve had a chance to work out on the off-days and stay in really good shape. I think I’m ready for the opportunity and hopefully I’ll do well with it.

Carolina Hurricanes' Scott Walker (24) defends as Edmonton Oilers' Sam Gagner (89) controls the puck during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Raleigh, N.C., Friday, Jan. 18, 2008. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Q: What has your practice routine been like? Have you put extra work in on game days, for instance?

A: We practice with the team on every off-day and on gamedays we’ve been switching off from working out to practicing, just the three of us – me, Matty (Mathieu Garon) and Mark Giordano. We’ve been going out and skating every other day and then working out on off days. I think it’s been a pretty good routine for us. We’ve been able to stay on the ice and be sharp and at the same time able to get some bike rides in and some runs to stay in pretty good aerobic shape. It’s been great for us, we feel good and we’re learning a lot. It’s been a great couple weeks and hopefully we can continue to push forward here.

Q: It sounds like you’ll be playing tomorrow on a line with a four-man rotation including Jason Chimera, Patrick Sharp and Jamal Mayers.

A: They’re really good players at the NHL level and pretty easy guys to play with. They play the game the right way – they work hard, move the puck well and are smart players. I think it will be pretty easy to fit in with them. They’re easy players to play with. For me, I just have to try and move my feet and get open as much as possible.

Q: Being in a situation where you’re sharing time on a line with three other players, do you feel your ability to play any of three forward positions gives you an edge in this case?

A: Obviously, versatility is a pretty big thing to have. I’m better in some positions than others but any time you can play all three forward positions it helps the coach out a lot. He can move you around and you can get more ice time that way. I’ve always tried to switch positions and be good at all positions. It should help out tomorrow for sure.

Q: Has it aided you to have some familiar faces at the tournament? Craig MacTavish being an assistant coach, Steve Staios and of course Mathieu Garon. 

A: There’s a little bit more of a comfort level there, having guys I’ve been with all year. It helps you out. Mac-T as a coach was great with me all year and taught me a lot about the game. Having him here helping me out with certain things has been great. Stevie was a great leader for us all year. He’s a veteran presence who is great now too.

Matty’s been sitting out with me and we both just want to stay positive and be ready for any chance we get. He’s a great guy and great leader.

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