When Simon Gagne turns on the TV and watches Flyers hockey, a smile comes to his face.
That’s because the former Flyers great sees his former junior coach working behind the bench and it brings back pleasant – and sometimes almost humorous — memories.
Alain Vigneault, the Flyers current head coach, happened to be giving orders to the youngsters on the Beauport Harfangs (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) team back in the 1996-97 season when a 16-year-old showed up to play against guys as old as age 19.
It was Gagne and who could ever have imagined that 14 years later, he would return from a toe injury to lead the Flyers to the most improbable series comeback victory in team and professional hockey history?
That would be the 2010 “Miracle at Boston’’ triumph in which the Flyers rallied from a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven series to defeat the Bruins in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
At the time, that was only the third occasion in NHL history a team had bounced back from that sort of hole.
And to think for Gagne it all started with Vigneault, who had spent three-plus seasons as an assistant coach with the NHL expansion Ottawa Senators before returning to the QMJHL.
Even 25 years ago Vigneault had a commanding presence and when a wide-eyed Gagne, the youngest player on the Harfang roster, walked into the room the first day, it was quite an awakening.
“He (Vigneault) was really tough on us,’’ Gagne recalled in a Monday media conference call. “To me, I felt he had a really strong power over us. I was really scared of Alain when he was yelling at us, but I was 16 years old. I didn’t really know what to expect.
“Now as I look back today, all that kind of prepared me for the NHL. (With more time) I could explain to you what the meeting with Alain was like at the end of the season. That meeting kind of opened my eyes and said, ‘Okay, I understand what he was doing with me this year and now I have to be a little more professional and put myself in better shape if I wanted to play in the NHL.’+’’
Two years later, in 1998, the Flyers chose Gagne in the first round (22nd overall) of the NHL Entry Draft.
Gagne credits Vigneault for putting him in that position.
“He was special,’’ Gagne said. “If I put myself back when I was a 16-year-old, not too many hockey players were making the jump from Midget AAA to junior hockey at 16.
“I was the only player that was 16 on my team. Alain was a tough coach. He was hard on players, but he was just coming back from a couple years with the Ottawa Senators. 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.’’
Gagne had plenty of skill but maybe not quite enough grit. Vigneault changed all that.
“He was intimidating when you met him for the first time,’’ Gagne said. “Like I said, he was a tough coach on players. For me, at 16, 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. I was that type of player that I didn’t really need to be coached when I was younger. That was the first time I knew I had a big challenge in front of me when I played for Alain.’’
In the long run, players don’t mind coaches who are tough, as long as they are fair.
And ironically enough, Gagne claims Vigneault has evolved into a more sophisticated coach at the highest level. He doesn’t need to yell as much. He goes about things in a more strategic manner.
“Now he’s totally changed,’’ Gagne said. “I am sure he is still demanding on players. I’m sure he’s still hard on players, but I think he is involved in the game the right way.
“You could see he is more a player’s coach now. He understands what the players need and what the players want and like about a coach. What was good with Alain, it was knowing the game, the system, the way he wanted us to play. If something needed to be changed, he was able to do that.’’
Well into a career which would make him the 12th-leading scorer in team history, Gagne returned from the aforementioned toe injury to score the overtime winner in Game 4 against Boston, then the deciding goal late in Game 7 as the Flyers rallied from a 3-0 score at TD Garden.
“Pretty much when it was 3-0, to be honest with you, maybe 80 percent of our guys had their heads down on the bench,’’ Gagne said. “In my mind, that said that we were done. We tried. We brought it back to Game 7. It’s 3-0. It’s over. This is where Lavy (head coach Peter Laviolette) called that timeout and he gave us a special speech that gave us back some energy.
“All the guys said, ‘Let’s try it. Let’s try it one more time,’ Pretty much everyone knows what Lavy said: Let’s just go one goal at a time. Let’s score one goal at the end of the first. If we do that, you’ll see that they will start to get nervous. When JVR (James van Riemsdyk) scored that first goal, we all looked at each other and said, ‘Could this be possible? Could we come back in this game?’ We all felt confidence and everything built on that. When we scored the second goal, we had the feeling we could come back and win that game.’’