Like father, like son is an aphorism Sam Gagner takes to heart.
After all, until the Edmonton Oilers centre pushed his way into the team’s record book beside Wayne Gretzky last week, his NHL career was remarkably like his father’s.
Both left home at an early age to play hockey. Dave Gagner at 15, heading for Tier 2 junior hockey in Newmarket, Ont.; Sam leaving the family home in Oakville, Ont., at 16 to play junior in the United States for an unhappy year.
Both were first-round draft picks in the NHL. Dave going 12th overall to the New York Rangers in 1983; Sam sixth overall to the Oilers in 2007.
Now, here’s where it gets important.
Both Gagners had trouble establishing themselves in the NHL. The Rangers became so disenchanted with Dave after three seasons that they traded him to the old Minnesota North Stars, where he later blossomed, scoring 31 or more goals for six consecutive seasons. After a promising rookie season in 2007-08 with 49 points, Sam’s production tailed off.
This season proved to be especially troubling. Oilers head coach Tom Renney had Gagner on the third line. Newer, brighter draft picks like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins were now the talk of the young team’s future. He was figuratively shoved aside and he wasn’t happy about it. Making matters worse, his name became a regular feature in the trade chatter leading up to the Feb. 27 NHL trade deadline.
But Sam Gagner is luckier than almost every other budding NHL star. His father has been there since Sam took his first strides on the ice, passing along the tough lessons he learned, both as a coach in minor and junior hockey and as a father. At the NHL all-star break a week ago, the son once again turned to the father.
“He cares a lot, so sometimes it wears on him,” Dave Gagner said Monday, shortly before he and some 30 other family members and friends watched the Oilers play the Toronto Maple Leafs. “His expectations were pretty high. It bothers him when others don’t agree with his assessment of himself.”
The talk – even though Oilers general manager Steve Tambellini has no intention of trading Sam – was especially hard.
“Everybody says [rumours are]part of the business and it is,” said Dave, who is the director of player development for the Vancouver Canucks. “But it’s difficult to keep these things off your mind and keep feeling good about yourself when you’re hearing it all the time.
“That was something we talked about a lot, how to handle that.”
The father’s message was the same as it always is, save perhaps for a more blunt delivery: Stay positive about yourself, stop moping and tell yourself you want to be the guy your teammates depend on.
The result was one a remarkable transformation.
Sam Gagner came back from the all-star break with a new attitude. Next thing you know, Renney put him on the top line with Eberle and Hall. Then, there was the eight-point night against the Chicago Blackhawks last Thursday, that tied him with Gretzky and Paul Coffey for the most points in one game in Oilers history. Then, there were three points in his next game against the Detroit Red Wings.
With Dave, mother Jo-Anne and all of the home folks watching at the Air Canada Centre, it took Sam all of 21 seconds to keep his point streak going. He assisted on Eberle’s goal and now has 34 points in 46 games.
“Yeah, I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Sam said before the game when the similarity with his father’s career was mentioned. “He’s a guy I owe everything to. We talk so much about the game and the ups and downs it brings.
“It took him a few years to become a regular NHLer who put up really good numbers. I try to listen to him as much as I can about what it takes to get through those slumps. I think the advice he’s given me, if I didn’t have it, I don’t know where I’d be.”