This just in, Sam Gagner is a helluva hockey player. What Edmonton Oilers fans might not know is Gagner is also a fine young man. It’s obvious to me that his dad, former NHLer Dave Gagner, did a lot of things right—on and off the ice—raising his boy. I’ve known that for months, but it seems a somewhat timely revelation in the wake of the disgraceful conduct of Hall-of-Famer Patrick Roy and his son Jonathan that’s made news for several days. I’ll get to that later, but, with another must-win game against the Minnesota Wild tonight, it’s worth reiterating how good the NHL’s youngest player has been for the Oilers in their push for a playoff spot. Let coach Craig MacTavish tell it "It’s amazing to me that a kid at that age can be as polished emotionally and physically as he is," MacTavish said. "He knows the game. "You look at the greats over the years and they’ve all had some growing pains within the game. I think it’s obviously a big advantage for Sam to come from a father who played the game." Has there been a better player for MacTavish than Gagner down the stretch? Statistically, certainly not—in the 24 games since Shawn Horcoff went out with a shoulder injury, Gagner has scored 8-19-27. As rare as it is for an 18-year-old to play in the NHL, it’s almost unheard of that a player his age would lead the way as his team makes a playoff push like the Oilers are on now. "He (Dave Gagner) obviously passed on a lot of important lessons on how to play the game, how to conduct yourself and how to prepare yourself," MacTavish said. "He’s really a complete player at 18. To be as productive as he has been offensively, well, you just don’t see it. The last I saw that was when I started in 1979 with (Raymond) Bourque. He was polished at 18. He came into camp and he was a player. I see those same attributes. Sam is going to be a special player, for sure."
The Sam I’ve seen…
Having been punted from the travelling merry-go-round that is the life of a hockey beat writer after a decade by the Edmonton Sun in January 2007, I don’t see Gagner every day. I don’t know Gagner well. It’s obvious from what I have seen that he’s polite, accommodating of interview requests and well-spoken at an age when many players fumble around with a case of nerves like a freshman on prom night. But I did get a glimpse of the stuff Gagner is made of early this season, and it told me all I need to know about him. On an off-day during a homestand in November, I took my 14-month-old son Sam to a practice at Rexall Place. That’s really a no-no, but I had no choice as the baby-sitter was sick, my wife was at work and I needed an interview. I was standing off to the side holding Sam—mine, not Dave’s—as players began filing off the ice. As Gagner walked past, he said something along the lines of, "Who’s this little guy?" I said, "He’s your biggest fan. His name is Sam, too." Gagner spent a few seconds making small talk and then, after a tweak of Sam’s cheek—mine, not Dave’s—he headed for the dressing room. A few minutes later, crack media man J.J. Hebert emerged from the room, walked over and said, "Here, Sam, this is for you," and handed my son an Oilers puck Gagner had signed. The ink was still wet. Gagner had no way of knowing Sam’s circumstances. How Sam weighed two pounds when he was born three months premature. How Sam had to fight for his life and was in intensive care for three months. Gagner had no idea of how much that gesture meant to me. He was just being, well, who he is. That puck is Sam’s first. When he is old enough to understand, I’ll tell him how he came to have it. I can tell you this: my son’s first hockey jersey will be an Oilers jersey with No. 89 and "Sam" on the back. —Listen to Robin Brownlee every Thursday from 4 to 5pm on Total Sports with Bob Stauffer on Team 1260.