Despite ups and downs, ‘love of the game’ carries Gagner on path to 1,000th NHL game

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WINNIPEG – The list of qualities required on the spectacular and occasionally meandering road to 1,000 NHL games for Sam Gagner is a lengthy one.

From the enormous talent required to make the NHL as an 18-year-old rookie with the Edmonton Oilers to the passion Gagner continues to show in his 15th season, despite a couple of stints in the minors later in his career, Thursday’s game against the Vancouver Canucks represents a milestone he takes great pride in.

“Regardless of who you are, you’re going to go through adversity throughout your career. You find out what you’re made of and you keep trying to push through,” said Gagner, now a member of the Winnipeg Jets, the seventh NHL organization of his decorated career. “It makes these moments that much more special.

“I’ve had my ups and downs, for sure. Getting sent down by Vancouver and then the following year by Edmonton again, you question how your career is going to end up. But you keep pushing along, keep trying to adjust to the modern game. It certainly feels good to get there. I wasn’t sure where the number would end up, you just want to keep playing and [I’m] certainly happy to get there.”

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Colorado Avalanche forward Andrew Cogliano was in Edmonton when Gagner burst onto the scene back in 2007.

He’s been a roommate, confidante and close friend over the years and was bursting with pride when asked about Gagner’s journey earlier this season.

“He keeps proving a lot of people wrong,” said Cogliano. “He’s very resilient. At the end of the day, a lot of guys in his situation would have quit or would have gone away and he never did. I actually think it fuelled him. He’s very driven to get better and be the best player he can possibly be.

“He’s a guy who is going to continue to stay in the lineup because when he is in the lineup and when he’s playing, he does a lot of good things out there.”

The sixth overall pick in the 2007 NHL Draft by the Oilers, Gagner transformed from an offence-first player to a guy who is responsible in all three zones, however, it’s been his ability to bounce between roles that has made him a strong fit since joining the Jets.

Part of the transformation occurred for Gagner when he was loaned to the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League by the Canucks during the 2018-19 season.

“I’m really thankful for my time there. They helped me in a lot of different ways,” said Gagner. “The big thing that year was defensively I needed to be able to reinvent myself to sustain my career. I feel like I’ve been able to become a better play driver by being better in the neutral zone, being better defensively and not spending as much time in the defensive zone. I’m grateful for that year.

“Obviously at the time it never feels good to spend that much time in the minors at that point of your career. You just go to work and try to get better. I feel like I did improve a lot that year and it’s helped me sustain my career.”

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The coach of the Marlies at that time was current Toronto Maple Leafs bench boss Sheldon Keefe, whose message resonated with Gagner.

“Love of the game, first of all. Despite coming down to play in the AHL, you never saw a dip in his mood or his energy level coming to the rink and his routines and the work that he put in with his game,” Keefe told reporters in Arizona on Wednesday. “I was thrilled for him to get back to the NHL that season and he hasn’t looked back since. We had Jason Spezza here (with the Maple Leafs), someone that has that passion for the game and you saw that from Sam Gagner at the AHL level.

“It’s no surprise that he was able to find his way back.”

Gagner was brought in by the Jets to be a depth guy, a true pro that could help provide some leadership, but his play was going to dictate where he might fit in and how much ice time he would receive.

“The biggest thing is he believes in himself. He believes in his abilities and, if given the chance, he’s going to take advantage of it,” said Jets associate coach Scott Arniel. “He came in here not knowing what he was going to get. We weren’t making any promises at all. At the end of the day, being truthful, we were trying to fill back in and get some bodies in here for the exhibition games, a veteran guy so that we could move forward (with), and then we didn’t know where it was going to go.

“So everything he’s done this year or gotten this year is because he’s worked for it and he’s believed in himself. I’d say his ability to believe in what he does and how he goes about his business to get ready is what’s (allowed) him to be able to play this long.”

He’s played on all four lines and even endured a couple of healthy scratches, but on Thursday, Gagner will start the contest on the top line with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Kyle Connor — another testament to his perseverance.

“I think you just appreciate how hard it is to do. The type of commitment you have to have to the game,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey. “From the player, but also from their family and everything that goes into it. Whether it’s 1,000 games, whatever way you do it there are a lot of ups and a lot of downs. I think every guy in the locker room just appreciates that. Because you look at how many games you have individually, and how many ups and downs go into that, and you’re like ‘Wow, there’s a long way just trying to get to that point.’ I think it’s one of the ultimate achievements as a player. Something that we all have a big admiration for.

“I don’t think you get to 1,000 games in any type of career without really loving the game. That’s something he brings to our team. And for young guys and everyone else in the locker room, he loves coming to the rink every day, loves practicing and talking about sticks and tape jobs and little skills and stuff like that. That kind of energy and excitement about the game is a big reason he’s going to achieve this milestone.”

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When speaking about the moment on Wednesday, Gagner took time to reflect and thank those people who helped him along the way, including his wife, Dr. Rachel Linke, whose sacrifices he applauded, while noting she occasionally takes on the responsibility of being his psychologist.

Those reflections also included stepping back into the time machine and recalling his first NHL game.

“I remember we won in a shootout, at home versus San Jose,” said Gagner. “I remember getting an assist on Tom Gilbert’s first NHL goal. And Andrew Cogliano was the other assist and we all lived together so it was a pretty special night for us. Feels like a long time ago now.” 

No matter how long ago it feels, Gagner has shown a sense of gratitude for the journey since he joined the Jets as a free agent in early September.

“Hopefully, it means I’ve got more left. I was pretty fortunate to break in early and get a lot of games in under my belt at an early age,“ said Gagner, who has 190 goals and 516 points in 999 games. “Physically, it’s a tough league. You’re playing a lot of games in a short amount of time. But mentally, it’s the hardest. There are a lot of ups and downs, especially with some of the situations I’ve been in, losing teams. It can’t wear on you. You need to find a way to find that enjoyment, to continue to push in those moments. You find out a lot about yourself. The adversity makes you stronger in all aspects of life. Those are the biggest challenges, getting over those mental hurdles. When you get through them, it certainly feels great and it’s rewarding.

“Confidence is a tough thing in this game, it comes and goes. Your discipline and dedication, being able to dig in, it’s really important. Most importantly, you find out who is in your corner, who is supporting you and it builds those relationships even stronger. That’s the biggest thing for me. I’m really thankful for all the support I’ve gotten through my career and I’m just grateful leading up to this, for sure.”

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