Sunday, April 7, 2013

Cup in hand, Gagne plans to add a little bit of experience

By Larry Wigge

Simon Gagne has been through it all.

He's spent 10 years with the Philadelphia Flyers through good times and bad. Yet, he had spent time with the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Los Angeles Kings to see what the greener side of things. The greener side of life included a Stanley Cup with the Kings -- life's ultimate prize.

On February 26, he was reacquired by Philadelphia and while he may not be the seven-time 20-goal scorer he once was, but he has the experience and the prize.

"I had that chance of a lifetime to raise the Stanley Cup in victory," said Gagne. "It was like no other feeling. It was unique, because we finished with the eighth spot in the playoffs ... and won ..."

It was at this point Gagne broke up. His tears were of joy for all of those years when he was with the Flyers and they fell short. Even a concussion that sideline him early in the season.

Gagne finally recovered in time to speak haltingly about the feeling, saying, "Just being a part of it ... For the pure satisfaction ... To win the Cup ... It was all I hoped for and more."

With all of the adoration behind him, Gagne, knowing he wasn't finished and could still help a team, he was traded for a fourth-round draft choice, which could become a third if the Flyers could recover to make the playoffs. 

"I'm happy to get that chance," Gagne said. "It was tough not to play. I'm going to a place I know well."

And now he joins the Flyers ... with a little bit of knowledge to pass along to this young Philadelphia team.

"He improves our depth up front automatically," said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren, who traded Gagne three years ago. "He is a good two-way player that can skate. ... Coaches have watched tape of him playing, so we feel comfortable that he is fine. He seems excited to be coming back, and looks forward to an opportunity to play and help us."

Gagne knows what to say to a young group of players. He showed he can still contribut, scoring a goal in his first game with the Flyers against the Washington Capitals February 27. He gotten only four goals in 18 games, but he adds the experience that most of these players only hope to achieve.

"I can still contribute," says Gagne. "But I'm not stubborn enough to say I should be getting power play time or minutes at key points of the game."

He comes back to the Flyers better prepared to lead them -- to guide them.

"It's that time of season, not only for young guys but for all the guys," Gagne said. "Maybe guys are a little nervous and watching what's going on. But it's part of the business and the older you get the more you get used to it."

Gagne is one of those rare athletes who can beat you with his speed on an odd-man rush up the ice. He can beat you with his shot ... from any angle. He can beat you with that innate vision he has on the ice that allows him to get into the right position a move or two before a play to make an impact. And he's also accountable on the defensive side of the game as well.

"Until you get a chance to coach Simon Gagne, I don't think you appreciate all the little things he does," former Flyers coach John Stevens said. "He's a world-class player on both sides of the puck."

The words, the compliments aren't out of place when speaking about the 33-year-old, 6-1, 195-pound winger from Ste-Foy, Quebec, who was the Philadelphia Flyers' first-round pick, 22nd overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. But the confidence that Simon Gagne would still be the same player who was coming off of seasons in which he scored 47 and 41 goals and was the MVP of the Philadelphia Flyers in each season, before he encountered a series of concussions.

He admits he learned about his own mortality the hard way ... 

"Not being able to play so much, I realized that some things I'd taken for granted ..."

Gagne paused as if to come up with just the right words to describe the mornings he would wake up with that familiar pounding headache -- and there was no pain pill to make it stop -- he felt while recovering from the concussions and the post-concussions symptoms that always follow before he continued, saying, "Coming into the season, I planned to be patient and maybe be back near full speed sometime after Christmas. Going eight months without playing, you just don't know if ... or when ... 

"You'll never know how scared I was when I played in my first exhibition game. The speed that I once thrived in, well, in that game, I had trouble keeping up with the rest of the guys.

"But that's life as a professional athlete. You want to play. You almost have to play. Until you go through a tough time like that, you know nothing about concussions.

"Now I know the brain takes a lot of time to heal."

Pardon the pun, but Simon Gagne is a heady player. He's smart. He's got that innate vision that star players have.

He's been a dangerous anytime he's on the ice, in any situation. You know, he might be even more dangerous now than he was when he had 40 or more goals earlier in his career, because of the attention other teams give to Simon Gagne, Jake Vorachek and Scott Hartnell now. He just kind of disappears ... and then -- BOOM -- he'll put the puck in the net against you.

Said Holmgren, "I remember the first time I saw him in juniors. He was skinny little guy with speed. I remember when we brought him into minicamp before his first training camp. He just looked like a hockey player. He was light on his feet, he handled the puck really well, and was calm.

"And all of a sudden this skinny little runt grew into a nice sized go-to player for us."

Overcoming obstacles is something every athlete has to overcome, even a Wayne Gretzky or Sidney Crosby. Simon Gagne has a little voice in his head that seems to pop up every time he needs a pep talk.

"The voice says, 'Never quit. Believe in your dreams.' "

"I think from the time I was on skates for the first time when I was two, my dad told me that ... at least it was the voice of reason for me," Gagne explained. "I'd rather not say the name of the coach. But when I was 14-15, I remember that coach telling me I was too small, too skinny to play at the next level. My dad's words carried me past that obstacle and I heard them again last summer when I was preparing for this season."

Pierre Gagne, Simon's dad, has more than a voice of reason. He's a policeman in Quebec City and he's obviously a voice of authority. Nicole Gagne was also a voice of authority and reason around home when she wasn't working as a life insurance salesperson.

"They were very important trying to keep my spirits up when the doctors told me I couldn't play. My parents have always been there for me," Gagne said.

Being able to carry out instructions on the ice to a 'T,' the quick-thinking Gagne got some pretty good advice from doctors on the dangers of post-concussion, but he went to former players to see what they did for their symptoms -- like former Flyers center Keith Primeau, who had to end his career because of the continuing difficulties he faced.

"What I learned is that I never lost my memory of the hits or anything. I never had trouble sleeping. The dizziness I'd feel once in a while wasn't debilitation like it is for some guys who have had concussions," Gagne continued. "That made me look at the recovery as a challenge or another obstacle to overcome, not a life-threatening situations."

Gagne was finding answers in a world of concussions where there are often no easy answers and force equals mass times acceleration -- with the greater the force, the greater the potential for injury.

One of the remedies for his neck pain, dizziness and headaches came when he was watching a health segment on the news and saw a special treatment that was being used at the Magaziner Center for Wellness and Anti-Aging in Cherry Hill, N.J. Simon's doctors gave him the go-ahead to see Dr. Scott Greenberg about an injection therapy called prolotherapy. Dr. Greenberg diagnosed the Jay Bouwmeester and Eric Staal hits as a sort of whiplash rather than more concussions.

Anti-inflammatory agents that help send white blood cells to the injured areas, regenerating the damaged tissue and strengthening the joints that were damaged.

And now Simon Gagne doesn't have to think what might have been if he lied to the doctors about how he felt and tried to play in the playoffs last spring. He's glad he took the time off -- and he looks around the Flyers locker room and knows he wants to be a big part of this team's playoff run this season.

All the Flyers are asking for is Simon Gagne, his wealth of talent, his words of wisdom and the experience he can provide.

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