Sam Gagner is flourishing in familiar surroundings. (Photo courtesy of London Knights hockey club)
Leaving the nest
Sam Gagner gained valuable playing experience last year in Sioux City, but missed his family's support. This season the promising 17-year-old is sticking close to home
By Doug Harrison, CBC Sports
When should young hockey players leave home to further develop their skills? It has become an annual debate in the Canadian junior ranks.
A year ago, Sam Gagner joined the Sioux City (Iowa) Musketeers of the United States Hockey League rather than play closer to home for the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.
Nine months later, Sam's father Dave phoned Sioux City general manager and coach Dave Siciliano to tell him the homesick 16-year-old wouldn’t be returning for a second season.
Sam, who starred for the Toronto Marlies minor midget triple-A squad the previous season, had fit in nicely with the Musketeers and managed 29 points in his first 29 games.
But as the season wore on, life away from the rink became increasingly difficult for the native of Oakville, Ont. Sam missed the Canadian lifestyle and his family — Dave, mother Jo-Anne and his two sisters, Jessica and Renee — who had since moved to Minneapolis, Minn.
“I didn’t expect to be homesick,” Sam told CBC Sports Online. “I thought it would be fun being away from my parents for the first time, but it was actually the complete opposite.
“It was different without that support person there to make your meals and have a home-cooked meal. But everyone goes through it, and I think I benefited from it. I became a better person.”
He also became a better hockey player.
Sam, who signed with London on June 2, sat in a tie with teammate Patrick Kane atop the OHL scoring race with 60 points in 26 games on Dec. 7. He is also among 38 players invited to try out for Canada's world junior championship team that will vie for a gold medal in Sweden, starting Dec. 26.
A year ago, Dave Gagner supported his son's decision to leave home.
“I felt it was a necessity,” the former NHL forward told Sports Online. “I believe he’s going to go through adversity [to make it to the next level].
“I think it shaped him a bit and made him understand that you have to work through difficult situations. That’s more of a hardened approach. My wife probably would say he wasn’t necessarily ready to deal with certain situations."
Experience comes at a price
Looking back, Sam doesn't have any regrets about playing for Sioux City. The five-foot-11 centre feels the experience has contributed to his success in London, Ont., where he now lives with his family.
“I became more independent and I look at situations differently,” said Sam, who finished second in Musketeers scoring with 46 points in 56 games. “I let things happen, step away and try to figure it out. Before, I would get upset.”
Now 17, Sam said he enjoyed going to the rink in Sioux City, but things were different when he returned to his temporary home.
"When I had something to do, I didn’t have that support person I could call upon,” said Sam, who made a non-binding verbal commitment to attend the University of Wisconsin in the fall of 2007. “I didn’t feel as comfortable asking my billet as I do my family, because you don’t know them as well as your parents.
“It was tough to adjust at the beginning. As a kid I had a rink in my backyard, I was living with my parents. I could turn the TV on anytime there [in Canada] and watch hockey."
Dave, who made the four-hour drive to Sioux City once a month, noticed his son’s passion for the game wasn’t as strong in the second half of the 2005-06 season.
Coach Siciliano said he was never approached by an unhappy Sam, but in the back of his mind knew there was a possibility the player would leave the team.
"We talked a lot of hockey, me being from Ontario myself and a former coach in the OHL," said Siciliano, who guided the Owen Sound (Ont.) Platers for two seasons in the late 1990s. "He talked about his friends in Ontario playing major junior, so I knew there was a tug there.
"But on the other side he had committed to Wisconsin and that seemed to me to be a good decision."
Siciliano said he told Dave and Sam Gagner that the latter would succeed in his rookie OHL season.
"He has great vision, can finish and set [plays] up and is very competitive," Siciliano said. "I knew if he stayed here he would win the [league] scoring championship. He's a special player."
Father and son connection
Gagner is one of 38 players competing for a spot on Canada's world junior hokcey squad. (Photo courtesy of London Knights hockey club)
In hindsight, Dave Gagner, who was hired as an assistant coach in London on Aug. 8, believes having Sam leave home probably wasn’t the right decision. "But you have to take the positive out of everything. He did mature and I think it shaped him a bit."
In 1980, Dave was 15 when he left his parent’s farm in Chatham, Ont., heading east for Newmarket [near Toronto] to play for the Flyers of the Ontario Provincial Junior Hockey League.
The next season Dave, like Sam, had to make a difficult decision. Would he play for the OHL’s Brantford Alexanders or attend Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy N.Y.?
He chose the former and scored 55 goals and 121 points in 1982-83 for Brantford on the way to being drafted 12th overall by the New York Rangers.
When the NHL Central Scouting Bureau released its preliminary rankings on Nov. 16 for next summer’s entry draft, Sam was at the top. He was also seventh on the entry draft projections released on Nov. 15 by International Scouting Services.
Sam said the relationship with his dad has always been solid and only grew during the six years Dave coached him from peewee through midget.
Even at an age when some teenage kids distance themselves from their parents, Sam is grateful for the time he shares with his dad at home, on the ice and on the road.
While they try to leave hockey at the rink, it usually doesn’t work out that way, Sam said.
"At the rink he's my coach and helps me with my game," said Sam of Dave, who recorded 719 points in 946 career NHL games for seven teams. "At home, he's my dad and we continue that relationship.
“He’s helped me out with life situations more than anything. He’s always been a hard worker and instilled those values in me.
“He’s open-minded and a good listener. When things are good he’s on you. When things are bad he lays off. It’s a good balance and you don’t put pressure on yourself.”
And the most rewarding lesson learned from his dad?
“He told me to remain confident,” Sam continued. “He told me the only times he got mad were when he didn’t have confidence. I try to take that approach to my game.”
A game Sam is enjoying more with family by his side.
Born: Aug. 10, 1989, in Minneapolis, Minn.
Weight: 190 pounds
Drafted: Fourth round (67th overall) at 2005 OHL draft. Selected by Sioux City Musketeers in 2004 USHL Futures Draft. Eligible for 2007 NHL Entry Draft
Family: Father Dave, former NHL forward, mother Jo-Anne and sisters Jessica and Renee
OHL debut: Sept. 22, 2006 – two assists in 6-3 home win over Saginaw Spirit
School: Attends St. Thomas Aquinas High School in London. Also taking political science course twice a week at University of Western Ontario through Western's Initiative for Scholarly Excellence program
Awards: 2006 – OHL rookie of the month for October; OHL player of the week for period ending Oct. 15; 2005 - named MVP of OHL Cup tournament; USHL player of the week for period ending Oct. 31
Achievements: 2006 – One of 38 players invited to try out for Canada's world junior championship squad; named to USHL all-rookie team; represented Western Conference at USHL all-star game; member of Ontario under-17 team; 2005 – Member of OHL Cup champion Toronto Marlboros minor midget triple-A squad
Food on the run: When Sam was 14 and 15, he would spend 10 hours on weekends honing his hockey skills on his parent’s backyard rink. He and his friends, some of whom are currently playing in the OHL, would order pizza from their cellphones and have them delivered to the rink. “You’d go out there and the place would be littered with pizza boxes,” said his father Dave. “He was either playing hockey or doing homework.”
- 38 invited to Canadian junior camp
- Dec. 4, 2006