Simon Gagne won a Stanley Cup with the Kings in 2012.
He played in 822 NHL regular-season games and 109 playoff contests.
He was a two-time All-Star and scored 30-plus goals four times, including two seasons with over 40 markers.
Despite plenty of NHL accolades, he will never forget his junior hockey season as a 16-year-old in 1996-97.
Alain Vigneault wouldn’t let him forget it.
“That was the first time that I knew I had a big challenge in front of me,” Gagne said Monday on a conference call, “when I jumped in and played for Alain.”
Gagne was making the leap from Quebec Midget AAA hockey to the junior ranks in the QMJHL. Vigneault, who had not been an NHL head coach yet, was back in the QMJHL leading the Beauport Harfangs following parts of four seasons as an assistant for the Ottawa Senators.
Back then, Gagne was just a skinny scorer who thought everything happened on the ice. With a taste of the NHL, Vigneault was a coach ready to treat his youngsters like men.
It made for a relationship with some growing pains.
He was a pro coach, he just came back from the Ottawa Senators. He had those new tools, we were doing a lot of video, something I didn’t do really before that. It was a lot of video, a lot of structure in his approach that I was not used to.
On the other hand, we were a bunch of kids, 16 to 19 years old that don’t know what’s life really outside of hockey. You’re dealing with a bunch of guys that like to go out and stuff like that, not too serious about hockey sometimes, so he had to deal with that. He was really tough on us. To me, I felt he had a really strong power over us, I was really scared of Alain when he was yelling at us and stuff like that. But I was 16 years old, I didn’t really know what to expect. To me, looking back today, all of that prepared me for the NHL.
I was pretty nervous and a little bit scared of him at first when I saw him – a big guy that was keeping himself in good shape, he was intimidating when you met him for the first time. He was a tough coach on players. For me at 16 years old, that was pretty much the first time I had that type of coach. When you play minor hockey, the coaches are really easy on you and I was the type of player that I didn’t really need to be coached when I was younger.
Gagne is now 40 years old and retired. He was drafted by the Flyers during 1998 and played parts of 11 seasons in Philadelphia, becoming the organization’s ninth-ranked goal-scorer with 264 tallies. Vigneault is now 59 years old and in his first year as head coach of the Flyers. He has been an NHL bench boss for 17 seasons, has won three Presidents’ Trophies and taken two clubs to the Stanley Cup Final.
Both Gagne and Vigneault have changed since 1996-97. Gagne appreciates how Vigneault made him change, even if the 16-year-old was apprehensive at first. Vigneault pushed him to work and focus off the ice – like a pro, not a kid just hoping to be one.
At the time, minor hockey in midget AAA, we didn’t really pay attention too much about eating right, training right or go at the gym and put on some muscle and get stronger. We didn’t really pay attention to that. Alain was coming back from the pros and he brought that culture back into our junior team. ‘Hey guys, yeah, we practice, but after practice, you’ve got to go in the gym and lift some weights for 30 minutes or ride the bike for 30 minutes.’
Some guys were serious about it, I was 16 years old, I was not too serious about it. I didn’t like lifting weights because I was 16 years old, my weight was I think 150 at the time. Every time I was lifting something, I felt that something was going to break inside of my body. It was hard for me to go at the gym. The only time I was going, it’s when Alain was coming in the gym with us.
I don’t want to say I was not believing in that, I didn’t know anything else – I was just about practicing, getting better on the ice. Off-ice was not something that was fun for me to do and I was not willing to spend too much time there after practice.
Gagne recalled his exit interview with Vigneault after the year had finished. The head coach reminded him of the gym.
“Alain, at the end of the season, the meeting we had, he brought that back,” Gagne said. “He gave me some s— about it, that you know what it takes, he saw what the guys were doing in the NHL and that was something that Alain brought to our team that year.
“He kind of opened my eyes that I have a shot to maybe play in the NHL one day, but I have to sacrifice a couple of things and go at the gym, put on some muscle and be a little bit more serious about that if I want to play in the NHL.
“He was special.”
As Gagne transformed into a first-round pick, Vigneault joined the NHL head coaching business. Gagne believes his old coach has also made adjustments along the way.
“Totally different – Alain totally changed,” Gagne said. “I’m sure he’s still demanding on players, I’m sure he’s still hard on players, but I think he evolved with the game the right way. You can see he’s more of a player’s coach now, he understands what the players need, what the players like about a coach.
“What was good with Alain, I remember in junior, knowing the game, the system, the way he wanted us to play – if something needed to be changed, he was able to do that.”
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