Flying in Philly
Young forward Simon Gagne's game has lifted off to celestial heights
Simon Gagne, the Flyers' swift and swiftly emerging second-year forward, still recalls with awe his first NHL goal. On Oct. 12, 1999, Gagne, then a 19-year-old rookie, was on a power play against the Capitals. Three-time 50-goal scorer John LeClair camped out near the net while former league MVP Eric Lindros roamed along the boards. Manning the points were six-time All-Star Mark Recchi and two-time All-Star Eric Desjardins. Recchi took a shot, LeClair deflected it, goalie Olaf Kolzig stopped the puck but the rebound, Gagne says, "came to me, and I just hammered at it. I've replayed that goal in my mind again and again. All those great players were out there, and then there was me."
Gagne's humility hasn't waned, but he has proved that he belongs on the ice with the world's best players. This season, with Lindros an unsigned restricted free agent and LeClair having missed all but eight games with back injuries, Gagne has been arguably the best forward for Philadelphia, which through Sunday was 30-18-9-1. Gagne's 26 goals and +22 rating led the Flyers. "Simon's starting to realize that he can be a guy who makes big plays for us," says coach Bill Barber.
Three and a half years ago Gagne was a furniture mover over the summer. Two and a half years ago he was selected 22nd by the Flyers in the draft. Three weeks ago he was the youngest player in the All-Star Game in Denver, where he dressed next to Mario Lemieux. "He's going to be a star in this league for many years," Lemieux said after Gagne scored twice in the game. "It's amazing to hear him say that," says the 6-foot, 185-pound Gagne. "Then you hear people comparing me to the other guys—it's such an honor."
The "other guys" he refers to are the NHL's pair of vaunted young centers, the Bruins' 6'4", 225-pound Joe Thornton and the Lightning's 6'4", 210-pound Vincent Lecavalier, who were the No. 1 selections in the 1997 and '98 drafts, respectively. Gagne is a natural center who has played left wing this season. While he doesn't possess the physical presence of Thornton or Lecavalier, he's a more daring puckhandler and has an exceptional ability to accelerate. Gagne's career average of .73 points per game through Sunday dwarfs both Lecavalier's .63 and Thornton's .57. "When Simon comes down the wing with the puck, you see the fear in the defensemen's eyes," says Philadelphia right wing Rick Tocchet. "He really backs them off."
Gagne hardly seems fear-inspiring off the ice. He has a boyish face, favors Frosted Flakes for breakfast and blushes when he cites his favorite movie scene, in which a teenage boy makes love to an apple pie in American Pie. Could this humble babe be tomorrow's NHL superstar? "He may be," says Barber. "He's only going to get better."
What's Causing All the Injuries?
The cover of the January issue of USA Hockey's magazine poses the question HOW SAFE IS OUR SPORT? in bold red type. Safety has also been of increasing concern in the NHL, which is why before this season the league and its players' association wisely put together a 20-man committee to examine the issue. "We study everything from equipment to arena conditions to the way games are officiated," says Dave Dryden, a former NHL goalie who heads the committee. "We have lots of anecdotal evidence, but we don't want to draw conclusions yet."
The evidence includes this season's spate of injuries, which have sidelined stars such as Blues defenseman Chris Pronger, Bruins goalie Byron Dafoe and Sharks center Vincent Damphousse for extended periods. The NHL, which is reluctant to release injury stats for fear they may reflect poorly on the league, says the number of man-games lost to injuries has decreased 12% from last season. Yet hockeyinjuries.com, a respected website headed by Flames doctor Willem Meeuwisse, one of the advisers to Dryden's committee, reports that injuries, regardless of whether they resulted in lost playing time, are up 26%.
One thing everyone agrees on is that the oversized, armor-hard equipment used is a big concern. Says Avalanche forward Dave Reid, "You run into an elbow or a shoulder pad, and it's like hitting a brick wall." Dryden says, "While players are better protected, they may be more dangerous as well. The problem is how to tell what causes an injury. Is it the equipment or just the impact?"