Third time’s the charm for Gagner in Edmonton
Currently in his third stint with the Oilers, Sam Gagner happily returned to the city of Edmonton, which has long felt like home.
Feature photo: Getty Images
A lot has changed since Sam Gagner’s first time donning an Edmonton Oilers jersey, but his affinity for the city and the game is still very much the same.
Over 16 years after first sporting Oilers colours for his NHL debut, and roughly three seasons removed from his second tour with the team, Gagner is back where it all began after signing as a free agent with Edmonton on October 31.
“It’s just a great place to play hockey,” the 34-year-old told NHLPA.com. “The fan support is incredible. My wife has family here too, so it is a great place to play and to be.”
Around his time in Edmonton, Gagner suited up for six other teams with stops in Arizona, Philadelphia, Columbus, Vancouver and Detroit. While life off the ice has been nomadic for Gagner and his family, the forward’s on-ice accomplishments have been a testament to consistency he has brought over his career, which has included hitting the 1,000-game plateau last season while recording his 500th point.
There have also been some tough times, but the native of London, Ontario, has always found a way to rebound from obstacles such as his most recent – a double hip surgery.
“When you make a decision like that, to get your hips done so that you can come back and play, there is a huge commitment involved,” said Gagner, the Oilers’ sixth overall pick at the 2007 NHL Draft. “Our summer plans changed a bunch around my rehab and schedule. It’s a lot more time-consuming than a regular off-season training approach would be.
“You need a ton of support from the people around you and my wife [Rachel] is a rockstar in all that she does for our family. Since we’ve been married – she’s from Edmonton and we got married a week after I was traded for the first time – it feels like we’ve touched every corner of North America since then. She has put her career on hold for all that, and I know I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without all that gives me.”
In his return to regular-season action and Edmonton, Gagner showed he still had it.
The man given the nickname “Papa Oiler” by Oilers fans on social media gave them something else to cheer about after he netted a pair of goals on November 2 against the Dallas Stars.
“I didn’t know what to expect. Coming off double hip surgery – all the work that went into that – I hadn’t played at the NHL level in seven or eight months, so I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel and what the game was going to be like. I wanted to enjoy the moment. I knew it would feel great to pull that jersey on and play for the Oilers again. I wanted to enjoy that, and I did. I ended up feeling really good. I was able to create some chances and put two home, but it would have been better to come out with the win.”
His family, namely, his wife Dr. Rachel Linke, and the couple’s three children, aged eight, six, and four, have felt right at home in Edmonton.
Gagner has cherished the chance to share his latest hockey experiences, though the Oilers’ tough start to the 2023-24 campaign prompted some interesting conversations with his eldest child.
“It’s great for them to have these moments. They get to be around the rink on game day, come to the games and then be in the room after. They understand what’s going on.
“With the start we had to the season, I had a few more questions than I bargained for from my oldest son, asking about what was going on, but it’s been great to know they have an understanding of what I do. It makes these times that much more rewarding.”
Moments, at one point, he was not certain would happen. It is one more reason why Gagner is relishing his third opportunity to wear Oilers’ colours.
Playing with two of the game’s biggest stars has also been a thrill for Gagner.
“Well, Connor [McDavid] and Leon [Draisaitl] are pretty big differences from my first time playing in Edmonton,” he said with a chuckle. “They are guys who are gamebreakers.”
Some roster changes, however, have remained the same. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has spent his entire career with the Oilers since his NHL debut in 2011.
“The only real constant since the first time I was here and now is Nuge. He’s still around and he’s found another level. It’s been awesome to watch his career evolve. I know, first-hand that it is tough to keep your confidence when you have those losing seasons.
“He comes to the rink every day and tries to get better. He had a career year last year and it was awesome to watch. He’s an integral part of our team. We do have a great group and we are starting to turn it around now.”
Gagner’s primary goal is to help keep that momentum going.
He is confident he can.
“I was willing to go through the work because I love to play, and I wanted another chance to do it. I felt good at the start of the year, and it’s paid off. I imagine as the year goes on, I’ll feel better and better. I’m happy with how I’m feeling now, and I want to keep pushing forward and help the team win.”
As for the most treasured part of his latest Alberta hockey journey, Gagner considered the question briefly before he answered.
“Playing for Edmonton, I have always felt that tremendous support from the fans and being around so much family here. I have always enjoyed playing here. It’s cold outside now, the outdoor rinks are going – everywhere you look, it’s hockey season. It’s been a lot of fun.”