Flying In Philly
Young forward Simon Gagne's game has lifted off to celestial
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
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
That's the sort of thing the safety committee hopes to know by
this summer, when it will make recommendations to the league.
Perhaps next year when someone asks, "How safe is our sport?"
the NHL will be able to answer, "Getting safer."
Gretzky Buys the Coyotes
A Great Word Of Caution
Shortly after he and his backers completed the long-delayed
purchase of the Coyotes on Feb. 15, new managing partner Wayne
Gretzky talked about building a championship team and said he
would weigh any trade proposal he thought would help achieve
that goal. Two days later he made his first move by firing
general manager Bobby Smith and replacing him with veteran NHL
executive Cliff Fletcher.
While Gretzky is playing an active role with Phoenix--last
Saturday he also hired former teammate Pat Conacher as an
assistant coach--he's untried as a talent evaluator. Mario
Lemieux, who bought the Penguins two years ago, has rarely
meddled with Pittsburgh's outstanding G.M., Craig Patrick.
Gretzky would be wise to follow suit and rely on Fletcher, who
built the Flames' 1989 Cup winner and assembled a pair of
conference finalists for the Leafs. Gretzky won't likely follow
Lemieux back onto the ice, but following his management style
would give Gretzky his best chance at delivering a championship
For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Michael Farber and Kostya Kennedy, go to cnnsi.com/hockey.
WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?
Drafted by the Whalers with the fifth choice in 1994, the 6'1"
195-pounder didn't reach the 20-goal mark in his first four
seasons but had 25 goals last year. As of Sunday he had 29 this
Drafted by Edmonton with the sixth choice in 1994, the 6'1"
195-pounder scored 39 goals in 1996-97, but he has settled into
being a solid 25-goal-a-year man. As of Sunday he had 22 this
The Verdict: Smyth is tougher in the slot, but O'Neill has
greater versatility, and his steady progress makes him the one we