By Larry Wigge
Most athletes face a defining moment early in their career. Others wait and wait ...
For Edmonton Oilers forward Sam Gagner, that moment might have come on a June night in 2007, when he was selected sixth overall by the Edmonton Oilers to put him into the same club as his father Dave in the NHL. Others thought it might have been a night when he scored three goals and one assist in 2009 against Colorado.
The moment? Not yet.
People forget. The kid from London, Ontario, has just turned 22 before this season. He never played a moment in the minors.
With so much potential, why would the Oilers have invested 335 games developing Gagner, when he could have returned to junior and could have played a year or two in the minors and just been starting his NHL career?
In his first five seasons, Gagner had just 58 goals. Then, all of a sudden, bang. Gagner's magic touch strikes four goals and four assists.
The last time anyone in the NHL achieved eight points was Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey. He connected on all eight Oilers goals in a 8-4 victory over Chicago.
"At one point out there, I thought 'This is a joke,' " Gagner explained. "I can't really explain it. Everything I touched went in. It was a pretty surreal feeling. I’d never been a part of anything like this before. All year I've had a lot of chances but not much was going in."
Hey, people looking up stuff in the record book which hadn’t been looked up around here in three decades.
"My mom (JoAnne) usually falls asleep by the third period, but she stayed up and watched the whole game," he continued. "It was a pretty special night for her and my dad as well.
"He always reminds me that he scored four points in a playoff period once and that he holds that record with Wayne and a couple of other guys. I share that with my dad now and that's a pretty special feeling to be in that class -- even if it's just for one day."
Sam I am had reached the defining moment of his career -- and then some.
Gagner’s 11 points on 11 consecutive goals is a new Oilers record. Wayne Gretzky had a streak of 10 twice (December 26-30, 1984 and October 15-19, 1986). For the record, Gagner followed his eight-point night with two goal and one assist against Detroit, one assist against Toronto and two goals again against Detroit.
Coach Tom Renney said he thought Gagner's magic might take hold and carry him on to bigger and better things -- and make the trade rumors end.
"It just shows you how badly Sam wants to be part of what's going on here," said Renney.
"Those trade rumours are tough to deal with. I haven't really dealt with that in my career, so it weighs on you," said Gagner. "Hopefully, this will allow me to just go out and play and not worry about it."
Texts, e-mail and twitter accounts went wild. Gagner cherished a text from Gretzky.
"To get a text like that from the best player of all time is really special for me," Gagner said. "He didn't have to do that."
When you get a chance to see this 5-10, 191-pound center work his playmaking magic on the ice, the first thing you notice is his vision. Then you see his soft hands at work, his passing, his ice-cool demeanor and his ability to read the play and make something happen. It's almost like he can probe the defense and see what is playing out in front of him as if it was all moving in slow motion for him.
That's what made him such a prized prospect in the draft.
There's a subtle patience that belies the creative juices of all standout playmakers. Sam Gagner hasn't always been so methodical. So patient.
"Yeah," laughed Dave Gagner, Sam's dad and a former center in the NHL for 15 seasons with the New York Rangers, Minnesota, Dallas, Toronto, Calgary, Florida and Vancouver. "You could say that Sam is never late for anything. But ..."
But Sam had other ideas, when his mom had to report to the hospital earl. Dave and JoAnne had all the plans for the birth in Septemeber, when Dave would be in camp in Minnesota.
"But Sam had other ideas," Dave continued. "We were still at our cottage in Oakville when JoAnne started getting contractions and said; 'It looks like Sam isn't going to wait until training camp. He wants out now.'
"The rest of that day was like a blur. There was no hospital around the corner. All the plans ... well, they were dashed. The drive from the cottage to the hospital in London usually takes 40 minutes. I got there in 25 minutes.
"We knew from that day on that this was going to be a very special kid."
Special kid indeed. It's clear that Sam is a thinking man's player. He's a throwback to days gone by when kids spent hours on a backyard rink learning to love and respect the game. Something Dave Gagner became familiar when he retired. He began a new career in building custom-designed rinks and started a company called Custom Ice, mostly involved in the refrigeration of these custom-designed rinks.
It was on one of these rinks in the Gagner's backyard that Sam honed his skills. His backyard was a hockey rink version of baseball's field of dreams. It had steel nets and painted lines and floodlights. It had ads on the boards. And perhaps best of all, its ice was refrigerated, good 12 months of the year.
Sam's dad has always been there for him. In fact, he served as an assistant coach for Dale Hunter's London Knights this past season.
"My dad always taught me you need to be intense, work hard every shift," Sam recalled. "I try and bring a positive attitude to the rink every day. Whatever happens, happens. Yesterday’s mistakes are gone and forgotten. When you think that way, it usually works out for the best because you're not putting too much pressure on yourself. You can go out, relax and have fun."
The symbiotic relationship, being the son of an NHL player has its very huge benefits.
"There's no way I would have been able to meet and talk to professionals like Jarome Iginla, J.P. Parise, and so many others," Sam said. "I remember J.P. saying to me; 'It's important to have soft hands to go around people, but you always have to have strong hands on your stick to got through them.'
"You don't get inside-the-box information from just anyone."
That backyard rink in Oakville was home-ice for a number of the best players in the Ontario Hockey League. Sam's best friend and foe is another OHL center named John Tavares, who lived in the same neighborhood. Tavares played for Oshawa this past season. But the key to this friendship/rivalry is that Sam Gagner got to play one-on-one with Tavares, a budding superstar whom scouts predicted would go No. 1 in the 2009 draft.
"John is bigger and stronger than Sam and sometimes ... the way he plays is downright ruthless," Dave Gagner said.
"We had some pretty heated one-one-one battles on the rink. He'd tell you he won most of them, but he'd be lying," Sam said with a confident wink.
The stakes were more than about bragging rights, however. These anything-goes contests sometimes had no rules, no fouls, in which goals would only be counted if the puck was banked off a goalpost and in.
"The games were supposed to go to five ... but ended up going to 20," Sam Gagner said with a competitive smile. "Whoever lost wanted to keep the game going."
Patrick Kane, another teammate of Gagner's at London, happened to be on the ice for Sam Gagner's defining moment against Chicago.
"He was just giving me stare downs," said Gagner. "I don’t think he was happy I one-upped him like that. We have a competition going and so far, in our (NHL) career, he’s won every one. It’s nice to get that one on him tonight."
The game, this moment, was one for the ages. It all belong to Sam Gagner.