He later played in Calgary, Florida and Vancouver before hanging ‘em up in 1999. Since retiring, Gagner started a business building custom ice rinks and coached juniors in the Ontario Hockey League before landing his current gig, as the Canucks’ Director of Player Development in 1998.
During his 15 seasons skating in the NHL, he played for six different teams and saw all sorts of destinations throughout his solid playing career. But he admits, his time in Big D ranks as one of the more memorable parts of his time in the league.
“It was probably one of the more exciting times in my career. Moving to a new city like that with a group of guys that are your friends, it was a pretty exciting time for all of us,” he said. “We really didn’t know at first what to expect but we knew it was a great sports town. We thought that if we had some success, the fans would take to us. After the Super Bowl was over that year, it was a pretty positive thing. We started drawing a lot of fans and found our own little cult so to speak.”
The 12th overall pick in the 1983 NHL Entry Draft by the Rangers, the Chatham, Ontario native made debuted in 1984 and shuttled between New York and the American Hockey League until 1987, when he was dealt to the North Stars. It was in the Twin Cities that his career took off and in 1990-91, he registered 82 points in 73 games.
He had settled into a nice life in Minnesota, so he was quite surprised to learn the club would be moving to Dallas in 1993.
“I went there in the summertime with Mark Tinordi and Russ Courtnall to do some promotional work prior to us even moving down there. It was really hard to gauge how popular we’d be because no one seemed to even know we were coming,” Gagner recalled.
But he admits that neither he nor his teammates new exactly what to expect in their new destination in terms of facilities, fans and even where they would all live.
“It was going to be an interesting thing in terms of living in a nicer area of the country in terms of weather. But you really didn’t know what to expect. We’re all hockey guys that really liked to be in the middle of a hockey environment. We didn’t think we were going to be going into that [in Dallas],” he said. “We thought that we would be hard pressed to do better than what we were doing in Minnesota. But within a year, we were far more popular than we had been in Minnesota over the last few years.”
And since Dallas sports fans love a winner, it impressed their new fan base that in that first season in Big D that the Stars set what was then a franchise record with 97 points and advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
“We sat a franchise record that year for points up to that point. We played 25 years in Minnesota and first year we come to Dallas, we set a franchise record,” Gagner said. “It was probably the closest knit team we could have. We had 11 guys and families living in one community where I lived. You don’t really see that with too many other teams because it’s just so spread out normally.”
This former Star remembers how raucous Reunion Arena could get in the early years in Dallas. But he also fondly recalls something else that quickly became a tradition for local hockey fans.
“People took to us pretty quick. I just remember with the national anthem and how it started. They took the word ‘Stars’ within the national anthem and made it their own kind of thing,” he said. “The home atmosphere [was great]. It was a special time because it was new to everybody. Everybody was excited and it was really fresh. I think it helped everybody adjust better and kept our focus on trying to win because we wanted to win fans over.”
The Stars arrived right in the middle of the Cowboys being a perennial Super Bowl contender. In fact, the inaugural season of Dallas Stars hockey came not long after America’s Team won Super Bowl XXVII, their second Super Bowl win of the 90s and fourth as a franchise.
“We weren’t really competing with the Cowboys because we weren’t at that level but we knew we had to be good or people wouldn’t pay attention to us at all because they were Super Bowl champions that year. We knew the quality of play had to be pretty high to be taken seriously,” he said.
He knows that putting a quality product on the ice helped grow their fan base rather quickly, but this former center also realizes other factors were at play that first season of Stars stick and puck.
“Our business development people did a great job advertising us and making sure that everybody knew we were there. In the fall of that year, it became really apparent that people really liked the aggressive style of the game,” Gagner said.
Not only did the Stars’ arrival energize adult fans, but it also generated interest in the game at the youth level. That growth from the lowest levels quickly became apparent with the opening of several Star Centers and more DFW youngsters taking up the game.
“Well, I don’t know if we even knew what we were doing in that regard. I think Jim Lites spearheaded that whole thing,” Gagner said. “He knew that in order to have depth in your fan base you really had to get the kids involved. He looked to do that early on by getting back to the minor hockey community and trying to build minor hockey in the Dallas area. It’s interesting to see.”
And a sure sign of how much the game has taken off in the Metroplex came during the 2011 NHL Entry Draft when a local kid, Stefan Noesen of Plano, went 21st overall to Ottawa.
“He was born the same year that we went there. It’s kind of cool to see that evolution of hockey now where they’re producing a first-round pick,” Gagner said. “That’s a pretty neat thing right there. It was the business minds of the guys that started us there in Dallas, spearheaded by Jim Lites that made that whole process [possible]. It’s pretty neat that we’re all part of that because as players, we were oblivious to that part of it. We were just happy to be part of anything at that time.”
With an invigorated new fan base, the game growing from the youth level on up and a general buzz about town about Dallas’ newest franchise, it’s hard to blame him and any of his teammates for not wanting to leave. But if this savvy center learned anything during his tenure in the NHL, it’s that nothing lasts forever. So, when he was traded to the Leafs in January 1996, he wasn’t surprised.
“At times, being traded is part of the business but it was a very special group. It was hard to leave friends that we had become so close to. Getting traded is inevitable but it’s never easy because I was with that organization for almost nine years” Gagner said. “It was difficult from that standpoint but a few other guys had been traded before me. The writing was on the wall that they were going a different direction at that point.”
In 1999, he landed in Vancouver and while he admits he could have most likely played another year or two, decided to call it quits in the fall and walked away from the game.
“It was time to focus on my family. My son was 10 at the time and my daughters were eight and six. I just wanted to be able to spend a lot of time with them, have the freedom to go to their games, to coach my kids at hockey and do all that stuff I really didn’t get that much of an opportunity to do before,” Gagner said. “It was the right time for my family and maybe I did retire a couple of years early but looking how things have gone for my son, my daughters and the relationship that we have, I think it was perfect timing.”
One year after hanging up his skates, he founded Custom Ice Rinks, Inc. He was active with that company for about six years until landing a coaching job with London of the OHL.
“I wanted to get into coaching and try that. I still had a passion for hockey. My son had grown up and I wanted to move on and get involved at the highest level I could,” Gagner said. “Eventually I got an opportunity to coach in London, which was a great experience because they have a great tradition there of winning and of putting players in the National Hockey League.”
During his time with the Knights, he also got to accomplish another pretty important goal he had set for himself years earlier when his playing career was just taking off.
“I was also able to finish my degree when I was in London too. That was a nice thing, to be able to finish that off,” Gagner said. “I started in London at the University of Western Ontario and I never got back there to finish it. Coaching in London helped me do that as well. So I’ve been able to scratch off a few of the goals that I set earlier on in my life.”
After a solid run coaching the Knights, he landed an NHL job with the same club he retired with, the Canucks as their Director of Player Development. Just talking to him about his current gig, it quickly becomes clear how passionate he is about what he’s doing for the 2011 Western Conference champions.
“It’s our job to build a lot of depth so that if we have injuries or whatever down the line with our main club, they’re able to draw from our pool of guys. Last year, we had 14 defensemen play for the Canucks team during the season and I think about 17 or 18 forwards over the course of the season. Those are the types of things we’re trying to do here,” Gagner said. “Being part of this organization is awesome because we have great ownership and they really support everything we do. Hopefully our success will continue over the next few years here.”