Aaron Gagnon is getting rock-star treatment as a member of the Winnipeg Jets.
There he was, wearing a No. 42 practice jersey and joining two teammates on the ice last Friday at the MTS Centre. The jammed-packed place went bonkers as the Jets’ camp opened.
“The three of us injured guys (veteran Eric Fehr has a bad shoulder) skated out and they gave us a huge ovation,” said Gagnon, from his hotel room in the Peg. “I’ve never been that nervous for a bag skate in my life.”
Gagnon, a 25-year-old born in Quesnel and raised in Armstrong, tore an ACL in the first period of his last playoff game with the American League Texas Stars last season.
The former heart and soul of the Seattle Thunderbirds, who has played 21 NHL games with two assists, probably could have re-signed with Dallas Stars, where his AHL coach, Glen Gulutzan, was promoted to head coach. Gagnon is represented by Ross Gurney of Vancouver.
“I was an unrestricted free agent which gave me the opportunity to look around and Winnipeg seemed like the best fit. They’re young and they have some room in the bottom of their lineup. I got a two-way this year and a one-way next year so that was a nice feeling.”
Gagnon, a 5-foot-10, 190-pound centre, won’t be cleared to play until late October. He is slowly working on crossovers and pivoting in his rehab.
His hotel roomie is Quesnel product Brett Festerling, a former Anaheim Duck.
Gagnon expects to start the season with the Jets’ AHL affiliate, St. John’s IceCaps. For now, he’s lapping up the adrenaline rush surrounding the NHL’s return to Winnipeg after a 15-year absence. Management is in the process of building two teams in 106 days.
“Everywhere you walk down the street, you see a Jets’ hat or a jersey. It’s pretty crazy and exciting.”
With four full years of minor pro miles on his resume, Gagnon is prime for regular duty in the show. He racked up 37 points in 58 AHL games last season, while playing 19 tilts in Dallas.
“At every level I’ve played, I started as a defensive checking guy so I have a carved a niche as a penalty killer and third- or fourth-line energy guy. I’m pretty comfortable now after two years of (NHL) camps. You kind of get comfortable in the exhibitions. I think I can play in the NHL. Skating has a never been a problem.”
Dallas full-time scout Dennis Holland, based in Vernon, has witnessed Gagnon’s act in two training camps, and liked what he saw.
“He has improved every year and he’s quick enough for the NHL,” said Holland. “The game of hockey is all about winning short races and he has the sense and quickness to compete.”
Holland figures injuries have hurt Gagnon’s chances of promotion and said the Stars valued him highly.
“He’s very smart defensively, he’s good at faceoffs and his attention to detail is excellent. I think he could play bottom-six for a team in the NHL.”
Gagnon amassed 244 points in five years with Seattle, getting chosen by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2004 Entry Draft.
He made his NHL debut in the 2009-10 season when he played two games for Dallas, who signed him as a free agent after a strong camp in ‘06. He racked up 58 points in the AHL that season.
Well known for his determination, Gagnon spent the summer working out with NHLers Shea Weber, Josh Gorges and Blake Comeau at Pinnacle Fitness in the Kelowna Capital News Centre, getting daily physio.
On former Kelowna Rocket Jamie Benn, who is a rising star in Dallas, Gagnon said: “He came down for our playoff run two years ago and he’s an amazing player.”
The amiable and down-to-earth Gagnon, who loved volunteering with the Ronald McDonald House during his time in Seattle, says the Jets have a great training staff and he’s feeling good about his rehab.
His older brother Bryn, a former Salmon Arm SilverBack and SAIT Trojans forward, is working in the financial industry in Calgary.