October 12, 2017

Legends of Team Canada: Dave Gagner

During his prime, Dave Gagner was a skillful scorer whose game was aided by his great determination and grittiness. Standing just 5'10" and 180lbs, Dave played much bigger than his listed size. He was an aggressive and fearless little guy who was a 30+ goal threat when at his best. Twice he topped 40 goals.

An intelligent player, Gagner wasn't a great skater but knew how to shake his check to get open. A finisher more than a playmaker, Dave possessed a good shot with a quick release. An adequate-at-best defensive player, Gagner was an on-ice leader. He was an admirable NHLer, giving everything he had on every shift.

Despite being a high draft pick, Dave took a long time to justify his lofty selection. The 12th pick in the 1983 Entry Draft by the NY Ranger's, Dave played for the Canadian Olympic Team at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo and finished the tournament as the team's third leading scorer. 

It was not an easy decision to play internationally for Gagner. When the Rangers let him know he would not immediately play in the NHL, he wanted to return to junior to chase a Memorial Cup championship. The Rangers wanted him to play under Dave King, and learn the defensive side of the game.

When he did turn pro, Gagner's tough adjustment to the pro ranks continued as he alternated between the Rangers and their AHL affiliate during the 1984-85, 1985-86, and 1986-87 seasons.

The Chatham Ontario native moved on to Minnesota in 1987-88. Despite tearing up the IHL with 16 goals and 26 points in 14 games, Dave was still unable to make any impact at the NHL level, scoring just 8 goals in 51 games.

Things changed for the better for Dave in 1988-89. Voted as the North Stars' Most Improved Player, he exploded with 35 goals and 78 points, proving to be a top 2 line center.

So why did he finally succeed after so many failures in the past? Well, opportunity is the main reason. The North Stars brought in a new coach in Pierre Page that season and he immediately liked Gagner's spunk and energy. After a strong training camp, Page called him "the hardest worker in the National Hockey League." Under Page's coaching systems, Gagner was finally in a perfect fit, and finally was given a chance to succeed.

And succeed he did.

Dave had an incredible start to the year. 22 goals and 41 points by mid season. He slowed down a bit in the second half of the year but ended up with 35 goals and 78 points in what amounted to his first full NHL season.

Page would only coach the team one more year, but Gagner's success continued for many years to come. He followed up his breakthrough season with a 40 goal, 78 point 1988-89 season. He had a career high 82 points including a second consecutive 40 goal year in 1990-91. Which saw him win team MVP honors as well as an appearance in the All Star game.

He continued to be a consistent scoring threat, scoring 31, 33, and 32 goals in the following 3 years before slowing down a notch. He scored 14 goals in the lockout shortened 1995 season.

Half way through the 1995-96 season, after 14 goals in 45 games with the Stars, the team traded Dave to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a deal that was designed to strengthened the Leafs. The Leafs already had superstar Doug Gilmour on their lineup, and Gagner's style of play was similar. Though nowhere near as good defensively, Dave was a poor man's version of Gilmour - very spirited, fearless play with good offensive output.

Dave however wasn't able to supply as much offense in Toronto as was hoped. He scored 7 goals in 28 regular season games, as well as 15 assists. However he registered only 2 assists in 6 playoff games in a disappointing spring for the Leafs.

Toronto traded the grizzled veteran to Calgary come the 1996-97 season. He had a decent year in Calgary, scoring 27 goals and 60 points in the offensive drought of the late 1990s. It was good timing for Dave too, as he was an unrestricted free agent at the end of the year. As a result, Dave signed a lucrative contract with the offense hungry Florida Panthers.

Dave was never able to supply what was expected in Florida. Scoring 20 goals and 48 points for a player who signed for over 2 million dollars a year, Gagner was soon on the trading block. The trade came in the form of a blockbuster as Gagner was part of the Florida package sent to Vancouver for hold out star Pavel Bure!

Vancouver was weak at center and it was hoped that Gagner, in the last year of his contract, could step in and help out. Unfortunately Gagner, who was ultimately nothing more than a throw-in in the Bure deal in order to make financial sheets balance, Gagner was very ineffective. He scored just 2 goals in 33 games with the Canucks.

Following his awful year, no teams were interested in Gagner and he had little option but to retire.

"I'm very fortunate to have made a living playing the game I love. At this time, I would like to spend more time with my family and pursue other interests."

Dave will always be remembered as a solid NHLer, a hard worker and a great team guy.

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