Edmonton - June 29, 2014 - It’s been a long road. I have been criticized, even ridiculed for my support of Sam Gagner. I have written countless posts about his merit, his credentials on and off the ice and his overall impact in the locker room and the path he took to Oilers veteran status.
He has had some tough years and some great ones in Edmonton. A career Oiler that played his entire NHL campaign in Orange and Blue is on his way to the Sunshine state. The return is a big winger with the ability to make some big plays. Given that Gagner was as good as traded as soon as the season wrapped, I am satisfied with the return. Craig MacTavish has done some really good things to fill holes in the lineup, and this is no exception.
But I’m not going to focus a lot on the deal itself. Upon the news of hearing about the trade, I was hit by several emotions. As a journalist, I do my best to remain in the middle on certain things, but this is without a doubt going to be difficult. As a life-long fan of the Oilers, I have always considered Sam Gagner to be one of my favourites.
A small forward that proved a lot of people wrong when he made the starting roster in the fall he was drafted, Gagner on the ice had skill, and Gagner off the ice had the drive and determination. I knew there was something special about number 89, but It wasn’t until that February night against the Chicago Blackhawks that everyone else saw it too. He had always demonstrated that he had excellent vision, but at the point that the Oilers had all but announced a rebuild, Gagner really showed what it meant to be an Oiler.
Being a young guy with not a lot of NHL experience, Gagner welcomed in a plethora of young Oilers into the fold. From first overall Taylor Hall, to Theo Peckham, Jeff Petry, and even some signed UFA vets, Gagner filled the roll of team ambassador very well. Learning from Shawn Horcoff, he demonstrated the comradery and teamwork to maintain the positive attitude in a losing and overall negative circumstance.
Continuing with that strong character, there was never any doubt that even though the option presented itself, and many of his teammates wanted out, he wanted to see it through. He fought to stay an Oiler in the most unwanted of circumstances, just avoiding salary arbitration not once, but twice with not one but two different general managers. The desire to stay on a sinking ship doesn’t always show the best of motives, but with his personal life and professional desires on the table in public display, there was never any doubt that he wanted to play for the Oilers.
Most of the questions regarding Gagner’s effectiveness in the lineup came from his lack of defensive ability on the ice. Many fans and media heads had been trying to trade him for the last 5 years, and at the brink of his latest contract negotiation, there was even talk of letting him go to arbitration and become the youngest UFA in history. That didn’t happen and a deal was struck. A deal that had its share of ups and downs, pros and cons, highs and lows; as soon as there was a sign of struggle after Gagner returned from a debilitating jaw injury, the contract came into question and the talks of parting with him started up once again.
This season was an allusion to his struggles in Edmonton, and no matter how much he maintained that he wanted a chance to stay, and see the rebuild to fruition, Craig MacTavish and company had started to have a different line of thinking. I’m ready to concede that perhaps the conversation was more of a mutual agreement between Sam Gagner and the Oilers, but it doesn’t change the fact that Sam Gagner will more than likely be watching the Oilers rise to glory from another city.
Now given the circumstances, I would say that the inevitable Gagner trade couldn’t have worked out better for a Floridian Oilers fan who wears number 89 whenever he does play pickup or on the XBOX. Seeing that a prominent name in hockey history like Steve Yzerman wanted a chance to utilize him has to make a statement that the Oilers were not ready to make. Gagner has value, and the Tampa Bay Lightning, who will suit up and take the ice just 4 hours south of where I sit while I write this, will do everything they can to demonstrate that as they look towards another playoff run.
I am looking forward to the Monday night that Sam Gagner returns to Rexall for the first time in another uniform. I am hoping that the Oilers faithful will greet him with the welcome that such a dedicated teammate as him deserves, and I hope that the level of respect between fans and player will be one that no one can question. He never wore the “C” even though he was probably heavily considered for the honour, but no one can question the leadership and the determination that Sam Gagner exuded every time he pulled over the 89 Oilers sweater.
Gagner will always be one of my favourite players to ever wear the Oil drop, and that doesn’t change now that he dawns a Bolt of Lightning on his chest. He will get the chance to play with the likes of Steven Stamkos, Ryan Callahan, and the rest of the young core in Tampa Bay. I’m sure he will appreciate the warm winters and despise the ridiculously humid summers of the gulf coast, but I can’t imagine he isn’t at least a little excited to be headed to a new market, with a new bride, and a new life ahead of him. I wish him all the best in his journey, and I would be lying if I said that when the teams meet in Tampa on January 15th, I wouldn’t be looking forward to seeing Gagner as well as my beloved Oilers.
Sam Gagner, I would like to speak on behalf of the Oilers nation when I say thank you for being the supreme character that you were. Thank you for taking the ice on a losing squad for the last 7 years and never displaying a negative attitude. The kids that will without a doubt bring success to the Oilers wouldn’t be where they were without your guidance and your leadership, and as a fan of the Oilers, I am truly grateful. Thank you for giving me someone to follow on and off the ice for the past 7 years. I wish you all the best in your future, wherever you end up, and know that the Lightning just gained at least a few more fans by your being there.
EDIT: It sounds like the Tampa Bay Lightning may be flipping Gagner to Arizona. Doesn't change the impact he had in Edmonton, and I wish him nothing but success wherever he lands.