NHL’s pause has silver lining as journeyman Sam Gagner returns home

Sam Gagner, pictured as a member of the Detroit Red Wings, lines up for a face-off. (Dave Reginek/Getty)

EDMONTON — Sam Gagner grew up a hockey brat, the son of long-time NHLer Dave Gagner. Dad played in six different NHL cities before Sam was 10 years old.

Gagner, his two sisters, and their mother Jo-Anne, packed up and followed Dave from Minnesota to Dallas, to Toronto, to Calgary, to Florida and finally to Vancouver, where Dad played out his 946-game, 714-point NHL career. It was a hockey life that produced an 844-game NHL career for Sam, and a four-year stint at Dartmouth University for sister Jessica, who is two years younger.

But it also meant changing schools, and a revolving door of friends throughout the Gagner kids’ youths. Not necessarily a bad way to grow up, but certainly different, is the best way to describe what it’s like to be raised in an NHL hockey family.

So if Sam Gagner, whose wife Rachel had their third child in September, gets anything out of this “pause” that the NHL is on, it’s that life as a normal family man isn’t so bad.

“That’s the silver lining,” Gagner said over the phone from his Edmonton home, the voices of his kids — aged four, two and six months — audible in the background.

“I was reading something the other day about, as a society, maybe it’s time for a re-set. Focus on our families, the things that matter, and just try to stay healthy. Those are the main things, and as a family, that’s what we’re trying to do.

“Hanging out as a family? Getting in as much time family time as you can, because we missed a lot of that this year? That part of this has been good.”

Gagner was so very pleased to be traded from Vancouver to Edmonton last season. Nothing against the Canucks, but Rachel is an Edmontonian. They have a house here, and so is her family.

And he was, on the other end of the scale, every bit as devastated when his salary was shipped to Detroit at the 2020 trade deadline, so that the Oilers could afford the acquisition of Andreas Athanasiou. Of course, Gagner realized that as a bottom-six utility winger making $3.15 million, it was highly possible he would be traded in a cap-clearing move.

But Detroit is a long way from home — which is why he hopped the first plane home when the NHL hit the pause button.

“I just didn’t want to get stuck in Detroit, while my wife and kids were here. Just leaving my wife with the kids during a quarantine. I felt like I had to get back, and the Wings were really helpful in making sure of that. It’s just nice to be with family at this time, obviously,” he said. “I don’t want to trivialize things. I know there are a lot of people out there who are way worse off than we are, struggling to make ends meet. We’re very fortunate that we’re together as a family.

“You try to use the time as a period of reflection.”

The Gagners are all on self-quarantine due to his travels from the United States. That will end soon enough, as will the COVID-19 pandemic, eventually.

When it does, Gagner — who is a 30-year-old unrestricted free agent that has played for seven different organizations since the 2013-14 season — will be facing some realities.

After this extended time spent with his three kids, does he sign a six-figure deal with a team that is two time zones away from his family? Does he drag the whole clan along for what could well be a one-year deal, giving his kids the same migratory upbringing that he had?

Can Gagner, as a utility man, sign with the Oilers where he successfully moved up and down the right wing this season from the fourth line all the way up to Connor McDavid’s unit?

“I don’t have anything figured out yet,” Gagner said. “A weird part about this is, you don’t know if the season is over, so we haven’t had exit meetings or anything yet. I don’t really know where anything stands with Detroit.

“I’m not really worried about that right now.”

As players go, Gagner is near the top of the curve on smarts, experience and personality. He seems old because he broke in at age 18, but in reality, he’s only 30.

When the Oilers sent him down to Bakersfield this season — his third AHL stint since 2015-16 — Oilers GM Ken Holland told Gagner to keep his eyes open and watch how things work down there. Observe.

Holland was always looking to groom future management types like Steve Yzerman, Kris Draper, Dan Cleary and Kirk Maltby while in Detroit, and he sees the same potential in Sam, whose father Dave worked in the Canucks’ front office and is now an agent with the Orr Hockey Group.

Right now though, the only departure Gagner is willing to make from “hockey player” is the temporary transition to “full-time dad.” You sense he would love to find a way to continue his NHL career before beginning the next chapter, whatever it may be.

“Everyone’s in the same situation. In every line of work, people are away from work at this time,” he said. “A lot of people have the opportunity to work from home, but for us, it’s self-quarantine, make sure you’re staying in shape and make sure you’re ready if we do come back.”

Of course, between workouts and feedings, a little something on TV wouldn’t hurt.

“You turn on the TV and you’re like, ‘I’m going to watch some golf.’ There’s no golf,” he said. “You’re never sure what to do with yourself when life comes to a complete stop.

“But when you’re with your family — and we haven’t had a ton of family time this year — it allows us to do that.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.