How a relationship with failure helped Edmonton Oilers veteran Sam Gagner fall further in love with hockey

Edmonton Oilers Sam Gagner
Photo credit:Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports
Zach Laing
1 month ago
Sam Gagner sat inside Rogers Place in his locker room stall Friday afternoon, not long after his Edmonton Oilers skated during an off-day practice.
Sweat dripped off his hanging skates as troves of media from around the world descended to better understand what had gone wrong for the Oilers, leading them to a 3-0 hole in the Stanley Cup Finals against the Florida Panthers.
Gagner, meanwhile, was reflecting on an arduous road to get there.
It’s been a long and winding one, featuring seven teams, five trades, four free-agent contracts, waivers, minor-league assignments, and 1,043 regular season games at the NHL level. But along the road, he’s played in just 11 playoff games — none of which have occurred with the Edmonton Oilers, the team that drafted him sixth overall in 2007.
While Gagner, 34, is the first to say he’s always dreamed of making it to where he is, competing for the Stanley Cup, it’s under much different circumstances than he ever imagined. He hasn’t skated in a single playoff game for the team this year as a healthy scratch, but he’s kept a stall inside the Oilers locker room, where he opened up to Oilersnation about how he’s had to learn how to accept his new role on his journey.
“I think my relationship with failure has come a long way,” he said. “I understand more now that that’s part of it, that’s part of having success.
“I’ve overcome some challenges in my career that have helped me understand that perspective, and now I almost get excited when I go through adversity because it’s just another challenge. It’s kind of really helped me to frame it that way, and it’s why I’ve been able to continue to play.
“You have to enjoy doing hard things, and this is really hard. But I’ve learned to love it over the years.”
The expectations of Gagner were big when he arrived in Edmonton in the fall of 2007. He had been one of the highest-selected players in Oilers history to that point being taken sixth overall, and the hope at the time was that he would be the one to help lead the Oilers back to the playoffs one day.
After all, the team wasn’t far removed from its run to the Stanley Cup Finals a year prior.
“I think when you first get here, you look up at the banners and that’s all you dream about,” said Gagner.
While many of those expectations came from the market he played in, one rabid for anything to do with Edmonton Oilers hockey, there may have been few who had higher ones than Gagner himself.
I’ve always had kind of high expectations for myself,” he said. “I work really hard at it, and you expect it to kind of be a straight line to success, especially as a young player, then you kind of realize that’s never the truth.
“I’ve kind of embraced that relationship with failure and overcoming adversity, and it’s made the journey a lot more fun, that’s for sure.”
None of it could’ve been actualized without his support system, Gagner added.
“I have an incredible support system, my family, my parents, my wife especially,” he said. “I have started with a sports psych too that’s helped, and then I read a lot on these types of things. 
“That perspective shift has really helped me, and as much as there’s a lot of challenges in this game, I think at times, it’s made me fall in love with it even more. Just coming to the rink and try to work on things and get better. If it doesn’t go exactly as you planned, you come back the next day and do it again. It’s been a fun road.”
No matter how fun his new journey may be, he still has an unmatched passion for the game. It’s what led him to become a fan favourite in the Edmonton market in the first place. Moments like his patented shootout move against the Phoenix Coyotes, his historic eight-point night against the Chicago Blackhawks, and finding his way back to the Oilers for a third is what helped draw fans even closer to the game.
Nowadays, Gagner’s days are filled with working with the various Black Aces and healthy scratches the Oilers have in Edmonton. That work includes showing up, leading by example, helping regulate emotions and working on things on-ice, in his own words, he said.
And it’s those things that have made him such a valued member of the organization.
“He’s a great leader for us, even when he doesn’t play,” said another long-time Oiler, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, on Friday. “He’s a great guy to have around the room. I’ve known him for a long time. He’s been in this organization a lot.
“I feel like even when he got traded there, he still felt like an Oiler. He wants to be here, he wants to be helping out however he can. He’s a great role model for a lot of the younger guys coming up, and a great teammate to have around.”
During Oilers practice Friday, he skated on the defacto fifth line alongside Sam Carrick and Black Ace Lane Pederson and while it remains to be seen whether or not the Oilers would put him into the lineup, he’s ready for whatever comes his way.
“I’ve had stretches off before and came back and felt good,” said Gagner. “Whatever the lineup is, it’s out of my control, but I’ll show up prepared like I always do.”

Zach Laing is the Nation Network’s news director and senior columnist. He can be followed on Twitter at @zjlaing, or reached by email at zach@thenationnetwork.com.

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