Today is Simon Gagne’s ninth birthday. Of course, seeing as Gagne was born in 1980, he’s actually turning 36 today, but given that his actual birthday is the Leap Day, Feb. 29, Gagne has only celebrated his actual birthday nine times.
That means w Gagne made his NHL debut, he had only celebrated four actual birthdays. So, in a sense, Gagne made it onto the Philadelphia Flyers before celebrating his fifth birthday. A real prodigy for his age, you could say.
The thing is, though, Gagne wasn’t the first Leap Day-born player to make it to the NHL having celebrated only a handful of birthdays, nor was he the best. And while he ranks among the very best of the Leap Day players, he’s not the best, and it’s going to be tough for anyone to ever take the crown as the best Leap Day-born NHLer. Here are the five best players born on Feb. 29:
5. Kari Eloranta
The Finnish blueliner was a late bloomer, but came in and had some fairly productive seasons in the NHL with the Calgary Flames. When he first came over, he had already celebrated six birthdays, so compared to Gagne, Eloranta was ancient.
He first came to Alberta in 1981-82, putting up a respectable goal and 13 points in 31 games. He had his best year, though, during the 1982-83 season with the Flames. In 80 games that season, Eloranta notched four goals and 44 points to finish seventh in scoring in Calgary. He left the NHL in 1987 at age 30 and went on to play 10 more seasons in Europe. He’s currently an assistant coach with SM-Liiga’s Pelicans.
4. Dan Daoust
Having celebrated five actual birthdays, Daoust came into the NHL with the Montreal Canadiens before being dealt to the Toronto Maple Leafs four games into his career. He then proceeded to post 18 goals and 51 points in 48 games with Toronto en route to finishing seventh in Calder Trophy voting. Not a bad start to his career.
Daoust would go on to play seven more seasons with the Maple Leafs, registering 87 goals and 253 points in 518 career games with Toronto. By his 30th birthday — seven actual birthdays, for those keeping track — Daoust was out of the league and off to Switzerland where he would spend the next six seasons of his career. He returned to coach the AHL Hamilton Bulldogs in 1996-97, but that only lasted one season.
3. Simon Gagne
Gagne had a tremendous career and won just about everything a player could ask for. In his rookie year, he posted 20 goals and 48 points in 80 games, finished fourth in Calder voting and became an instant fan favorite in Philadelphia. By the next season, he was a near 30-goal scorer and was showing top line potential for the Flyers.
He would go on to spend 10 seasons with the Flyers and score 264 goals and 535 points before moving on to make stops with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Los Angeles Kings and Boston Bruins. Gagne would capture his biggest piece of NHL hardware when he won the Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2011-12, but he had plenty of international success. Gagne won World Junior Championship silver in 1998-99, Olympic gold in 2001-02, World Cup gold in 2003-04 and a World Championship silver in 2004-05. Gagne retired last season after 23 games with the Bruins.
2. Cam Ward
Inarguably the best start to a career on this list was had by Ward, who played out of his mind as a 21-year-old in the post-season for Carolina en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy. The Hurricanes rode Ward’s .920 save percentage, 2.14 goals-against average and two shutouts to the Stanley Cup, but Ward has never quite gotten back to that form. He’s carved out a solid career for himself, though.
Now in his 11th season with the Hurricanes, Ward holds the Hurricanes’ franchise goaltending records in several categories. His 554 games are the most games by a goaltender, and no one is close to his 264 wins as a member for the Hurricanes. Ward also has the all-time shutouts mark for the franchise with 23.
Now 32, Ward may be in his final days as a Hurricane. His contract expires at the end of this season, and he could be ready to move on from the only organization he has known when he becomes a free agent this off-season.
1. Henri Richard
Often overshadowed by his brother Maurice, Henri, nicknamed ‘Pocket Rocket’, is one of the most successful players of all-time.
Like Gagne, Richard debuted as a 19-year-old, meaning he had celebrated just four actual birthdays. And once in the league, Richard was a near instant star. In his first season, Richard scored 19 goals and 40 points in 64 games, finishing third in Calder voting. He then went on to become a key fixture of a great Canadiens lineup. Over the next 20 seasons, all spent with Montreal, Richard scored 358 goals and 1,046 points, which currently stands as the 68th most points in league history.
Being part of the most successful franchise of all-time also had its benefits for Richard’s trophy case. After winning a Stanley Cup in his rookie season, Richard would help the Canadiens to 10 more, including the 1959-60 championship in which Richard led the post-season with three goals and 12 points. His final Stanley Cup came in 1972-73.
Richard, who turns 80 today, was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1979.