TIMMINS – Paul Gagne’s hockey career spans several decades.
Over the years, the former first-round draft pick of the Colorado Rockies has spent his fair share of the Christmas holidays in various places from the streets of Iroquois Falls and Windsor, to the mountains of Colorado and Switzerland.
He is currently the head coach and general manager of the Abitibi Eskimos of the Northern Ontario Junior ‘A’ Hockey League. Recently, he talked about what it was like as professional hockey player during the Christmas holidays.
Some of Gagne’s fondest memories of Christmas holidays came when the young forward was playing for the Windsor Spitfires of the then Ontario Hockey Association (now OHL).
Players were given about a week of time off during the holidays.
“The best time was when I was with Windsor,” said Gagne. “There were guys from North Bay, Kapuskasing and Iroquois Falls. We couldn’t wait for the last game before the break. We would jump into the car and drive the 10 hours or so, all the way home. It was quite the road trip, but it put you in the spirit of things because you would get to see family and buddies you haven’t seen in four or five months.”
Gagne spent two seasons with the Spitfires before being selected 19th overall by the Colorado Rockies in the 1980 NHL Entry Draft.
His first year with the club was big.
He cracked the Rockies roster at 18 years old in his first year and went on to record 25 goals and 42 points in 61 games, setting the Colorado record (since broken) for goals by a left winger.
However, Gagne suffered a knee injury on Dec. 18 in a game versus Philadelphia.
“When I hurt my knee, they told me instead of sticking around there I could go home for about 10 days,” said Gagne. “I was really happy to come back home.”
However, in his second year with the Rockies, Gagne couldn’t get away to spend Christmas with his family. Instead, he gathered with friends and teammates from the area to celebrate together.
“It’s really tough for a 19 year old, but it was work for me,” said Gagne. “I enjoyed it because you’re with your friends and teammates. The older guys who have families always took care of the younger guys. The guys knew it was hard on the single guys, so they invited you over.”
The Rockies moved to New Jersey and became the Devils in 1982-83 and Gagne recalls one Christmas where he spent it with his neighbour and teammate defenceman Bruce Driver.
“He was in a condo next door to me and I remember him inviting me over during the holidays,” said Gagne.
One of Gagne’s best memories came with the newly married forward was playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs, following his callup from the Newmarket Saints of the American Hockey League.
It was the Harold Ballard days.
Many have only seen the eccentric side of the former Maple Leafs owner, but Gagne recalls a generous boss.
“When I was called up to Toronto, Harold gave us a Christmas dinner and he gave all the players plane tickets to fly wherever Sunquest flew for vacations,” said Gagne.
But business was business.
There were times when Gagne couldn’t get away from the hockey grind to celebrate the season.
“When I was in Toronto, I was called up from Newmarket near Christmas time and I think we played the 23rd or 24th,” said Gagne. “I remember we flew out Christmas Day and we played in Chicago on Boxing Day. I was a newlywed at the time, so it was quite difficult for my wife to say goodbye after the game, but I saw her a couple of days later.”
Gagne was traded from Toronto the New York Islanders just to prior to Christmas during the 1989-90 season.
He played nine games with the big club and 36 games with the Springfield Indians of the AHL.
At the time, Jim Roberts was the coach of the Indians, who had just formed an affiliation pact with the Islanders.
Gagne remembers getting a call from Roberts after the trade was finalized.
“He called me up because he knew about the trade and he offered to have me come up after Christmas,” said Gagne. “He was really accommodating.”
Gagne went on to play hockey in Europe for 11 years beginning in 1990.
He’s played in Germany and Switzerland, but some of the best times was when Gagne suited up for Canada at the Spengler Cup from the early to mid-’90s
The Spengler Cup takes place between Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
Gagne’s final two years in the Spengler Cup saw the forward named as an assistant captain 1995 and captain in 1996.
“It was different in Europe,” said Gagne. “I spent 11 years there and got to play in the Spengler cup. That’s what I remember the most. It was all the Canadians together. Everything was taken care of by Hockey Canada.
“I had both my kids with me, we stayed in a beautiful hotel, they catered us. We played hockey and the families had a great ole time.”
Gagne remembers horseback riding in the mountain, singing Christmas carols and a lot of team get-togethers.
“We brought Canada to Europe with about 40 crazy canucks in a foreign country,” said Gagne. “It was the greatest time.”