Gagner happy to be part of Team Canada even if he doesn’t get to play

QUEBEC – Given where this season started, it’s little wonder Sam Gagner is just happy to be here.

He’s part of the Canadian team at the IIHF World Hockey Championship but might end up being a spectator once the tournament starts because he’s considered the 14th forward.

That hardly fazes the 18-year-old Gagner, who has been all smiles during training camp at Le Pepsi Colisee. He’s fully aware Monday night’s exhibition game against Russia might be his last opportunity to wear the Canadian jersey this spring.

“I was brought here under the assumption that I wasn’t going to play very much, if at all,” said Gagner. “For me I think this is still a great opportunity.

“There’s a lot of great players here that I get a chance to learn from by seeing how they do things day in and day out.

“No matter how this tournament unfolds, I’m going to learn a lot.”

There’s no reason to doubt the young man.

Gagner’s season started last summer when he was part of the Canadian junior team that staged an eight-game series with Russia – four away and four at home. He was named MVP of that event and probably earned himself an extra look at the Edmonton Oilers training camp as a result.

He then cracked the Oilers lineup and was the youngest player in the NHL this past season. Gagner won’t celebrate his 19th birthday until Aug. 10.

Things got even better when Canadian GM Steve Yzerman called and asked him to join the world championship team as the extra forward.

“I was obviously pretty thrilled,” said Gagner. “I was with some friends at the time and was able to tell them right away.”

It’s been a pretty dramatic rise through the ranks, especially considering he was cut from Canada’s national under-18 team just over a year and a half ago. He’s since won a gold medal at the 2007 world junior championship.

Despite being so young, Gagner doesn’t really show his age. He’s the son of former NHLer Dave Gagner and has long worked towards following his dad and playing hockey at its highest level.

“He’s a really mature player who can play all three positions on offence,” said Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock. “He has the maturity of a 25 year old. We decided we wanted to give him every chance to be part of the team. He’s a special player.

“We felt he was somebody who could fit in this role.”

There’s a good chance that role might only involve taking part in practices and team meetings before watching games from the stands along with defenceman Mark Giordano and goalie Mathieu Garon – the other extra players.

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However, Hitchcock wouldn’t be all that surprised to see Gagner end up in his lineup at some point during the tournament. With the world championship being held in Canada, the event is being played on the smaller North American ice surface that often lends itself to more physical play.

That could mean more injuries.

“I think the odds are higher that some players are going to get a bit banged up and I think Sam could handle coming and playing,” said Hitchcock.

If that were to happen, the coach would have some comfort with the player. Gagner was one of the guy’s Hitchcock singled out for his strong play after an exhibition win over Finland on Saturday.

The same goes for Giordano and Garon. Barring something unforeseen, Yzerman doesn’t plan on bringing in any more reinforcements so they could find themselves replacing an injured player in the team’s lineup.

Like Gagner, Giordano started his year in Russia – albeit under significantly different circumstances. The 24-year-old defenceman signed with Dynamo Moscow after falling to come to an agreement on a new contract with the Calgary Flames, a team he’d played 55 career games for.

“It was a tough decision,” he said. “But now the year’s done and I’m using it to my benefit.

“Totally different culture, different league and style of play – hopefully I can take some things from it that help me.”

Being overseas gave him a chance to play for the Canadian team that won the Spengler Cup earlier this year and opened the door for his invite to this squad.

He’s hoping to take as much from this experience as he can.

“As much as you’d love to play, I’m happy to fill a role as a guy who’s pushing to be in the lineup,” said Giordano. “It’s still a thrill for me. The best players in the world are here.”

It’s the last stop before the off-season for everyone involved.

There are few players anywhere who can say they’ve had as memorable of a season as Gagner – no matter how this one ends up finishing for the teenager.

“It’s been a great little ride for me,” said Gagner. “From getting cut from the under-18 team a year and a half ago to being on the men’s team it’s pretty exciting.

“I’m having fun with it and taking it day by day.”