CARRYING A BIG STICK
By Brian Biggane
Palm Beach Post, 11-9-98
Dave Gagner isn't one of the 19 Florida Panthers who can recall the thrill of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 1996. Be he definitely can relate.
In 1991, Gagner was a member of a Minnesota North Stars team that finished fourth in its division with a 27-39-14 record, losing six of its last seven games, then upset Chicago, St. Louis, and Edmonton in the playoffs before losing to Mario Lemieux and Pittsburgh in the finals.
"It's an unbelievable feeling when you go to the rink and just know youre going to win," he said. "Nobody expected us to well in the playoffs, but the funny thing was we'd been almost unbeatable at home (12-1-2) and the last two months of the season, and we went into the playoffs with a lot of confidence."
"We got to within two games of winning the Stanley Cup. It was definitely the most fun Ive ever had."
Six years, two trades and three teams later, Gagner was hoping to relive that experience when he signed with the Panthers as an unrestricted free agent last summer. It hasn't been that much fun so far, but he can't be blamed for that.
A 5-foot-10, 180-pound center who has had six 30-goal seasons in his 13-year career, Gagner is on pace for a seventh with seven goals in his first 15 games.
"I'm pleased," coach Doug MacLean said. "The feistiness, the work ethic, is maybe better than I expected."
Always a bit on the small side for a center, Gagner accents his solid, low-to-the-ice frame with stick work that might be termed just this side of illegal. Then again, maybe not -- his 23 penalty minutes rank second on the team among forwards to Scott Mellanby's 37.
Gagner was expected to put his stick to good use as a Panther. MacLean paired him with Ray Sheppard from the start of training camp in hopes that Gagner would be the set-up guy and Sheppard the finisher on a productive second line. But Gagner so far has more goals (7) than assists (6)and Sheppard has been unable to get untracked.
"Did I expect him to be more of a playmaker?" MacLean asked. "Maybe a touch. But he's also made some plays that haven't been finished. If (other) guys were scoring maybe it would click."
Gagner's most prolific scoring days were in his eight-plus seasons with Minnesota and Dallas; he still ranks sixth on the Stars all-time scoring list with 247 goals and 287 assists.
Traded to Toronto midway through the 1995-96 season, Gagner looks back on his 28-game tenure with the Maple Leafs as the most frustrating time of his career.
"I was playing on a line with Mats Sundin and Mike Gartner," he said. We had a good group of guys, and I would've liked to have seen what we could've done (the next season)."
But the impatient Leafs dealt away not only Gagner (to Calgary) but other stars like Dave Andreychuk (New Jersey) and Gartner (Phoenix), in all cases for future prospects who havent made a difference.
"I feel sorry for the fans up there," Gagner said. "They're hockey crazy, and that organization has been screwed up for 28 years."
Gagner enjoyed Calgary, where he played on a line with one of the league's top rookies, Jarome Iginla, and finished second in scoring with 27 goals and 33 assists. The Panthers tried to acquire Gagner just before the trading deadline in March, but the deal fell through and he become an unrestricted free agent last summer.
"I was happy at the time the trade wasn't made because I wanted to finish what wed started," he said. "It was a fun year."
Free to go anywhere, he was courted by Florida, Chicago, Washington, and Calgary, among others.
Chicago and Florida were his finalists. He visited Chicago with his family and enjoyed it. But it was his respect for the Florida organization that ultimately made him a Panther.
"I liked the way they deal with people here," he said. "They're known to have a good group of guys who win as a team, and its fun to be a part of that."
Gagner, his wife and three children are "thrilled" to be living in South Florida.
"We couldn't be any happier, except for the fact that were not doing as well (on the ice) as I thought we would," he said.
The highest-paid Panther with a three-year deal worth $6.9 million, Gagner knows he was expected to play a big role in the Panthers success this season. He hasn't given up hope.
"I'm hoping we can do what's expected of us, and there's no reason we cant," he said. "That's why I wanted to come here, because I thought it was a chance to have a lot of success."