Friday, 02.06.2009 / 1:00 AM
Columns By Larry Wigge
You never quite know where you’re going to see Simon Gagne next on the 200-by-85 foot sheet of ice. It could be anywhere.
The Philadelphia Flyers’ veteran is one of those rare athletes who can beat you with his speed on an odd-man rush up the ice. He can beat you with a shot that could come from any angle. He can beat you with that innate vision he has that allows him to get into the right position a move or two before a play to make an impact. And he’s also accountable on the defensive side.
“Until you get a chance to coach Simon Gagne, I don’t think you appreciate all the little things he does,” Philadelphia Flyers coach John Stevens told me a few days after Gagne scored his 20th goal in just 44 games this season. “He’s a world-class player on both sides of the puck. He’s an important part of our power play … and he’s also a key part of our penalty-killing unit.
“He plays big minutes in all situations — and he’s a force in all situations for us.”
The compliments aren’t out of place when speaking about the 28-year-old, 6-foot-1, 195-pound forward from Ste-Foy, Quebec, who was the Flyers’ first-round pick (No. 22) in the 1998 Entry Draft. He had 47 goals in 2005-06 and 41 the next season, winning team MVP both seasons, but last season he missed 57 games due to concussion issues.
Would he be the same player when the 2008-09 season started?
“Not being able to play so much last year, I realized that some things I’d taken for granted,” he said.
Gagne paused as if to come up with just the right words to describe the mornings he would wake up with that familiar pounding headache — and there was no pain pill to make it stop — he felt while recovering from the concussions and the post-concussion symptoms that always follow before he continued: “Coming into the season I planned to be patient and maybe be back near full speed sometime after Christmas. Going eight months without playing, you just don’t know if or when …
“You’ll never know how scared I was when I played in my first exhibition game. The speed that I once thrived in, well, in that game, I had trouble keeping up with the rest of the guys.”
But the fast-skating, quick-shooting and oh-so-dangerous left wing magically regained his touch and feel for the game with the quickest start in his career, totaling 30 points in his first 21 games. In his first game after the All-Star break, he scored his 20th goal of the season, and he now has 47 points in 46 games.
We’re coming up on Feb. 10. That’s the date Gagne, after taking hits to the head by Florida’s Jay Bouwmeester on Oct. 24 and Pittsburgh’s Gary Roberts on Nov. 7, was knocked woozy for the third time, on a hit by Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal, and was shut down for the season with post-concussion symptoms. Gagne eventually learned that he didn’t suffer three concussions, but that the first one in October never healed and was aggravated with each additional blow. Gagne says now he might have returned too quickly from the initial hit and wonders whether last season would have been different had he been more patient.
“But that’s life as a professional athlete,” he said. “You want to play. You almost have to play. Until you go through a tough time like that, you know nothing about concussions.
“Now I know the brain takes a lot of time to heal.”
Pardon the pun, but Gagne is a heady player. He’s smart, with that innate vision star players have.
“He’s been a dangerous, dangerous player for the Flyers for a lot of years,” St. Louis Blues forward Brad Boyes said. “He’s dangerous anytime he’s on the ice, in any situation.
“You know, he might be even more dangerous now than he was when he had 40 or more goals earlier in his career, because of the attention other teams give to Mike Richards and Jeff Carter now. He just kind of disappears, and then, boom, he’ll put the puck in the net against you.”
Long-time linemate Mike Knuble wondered if the Flyers could have beaten the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals last spring had Gagne been in the lineup. Then got back to reality, saying how much the team was happy to have Gagne back.
“We were lucky,” Knuble said. “Where else could you pick up a world-class player in the summer to add to your team like we did when Simon said he was ready to come to us?