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Ex-Flyer Gagne would rather be playing

Simon Gagne was in Montreal talking about his Olympic memories as Canada won the gold medal. He still itches to play.

MONTREAL - Just as the sun crackled over the Mount Royal summit yesterday, throngs of people made their usual weekend pilgrimage downtown.

The route and ritual was familiar, if not the time of day.

Fans clad in red and white streamed past Bell Centre, hockey's current cathedral, and packed bars - before liquor was even allowed to be served - to share in the camaraderie of this country's golden hockey generation.

When the final horn sounded in Sochi and all of Canada erupted, the bright lights were once again shining on former Flyers forward Simon Gagne.

Yet these lights, burning in the TVA studio in Montreal, were much different than the ones beaming on him 12 years ago when Gagne jumped into the arms of a waiting Martin Brodeur on the ice in Salt Lake City to celebrate Canada's first Olympic gold medal in men's hockey in more than five decades.

Even in yesterday's hedonistic setting, in a country where hockey is religion, something was missing. While Gagne was reliving his Olympic memories on-air in French for all of Quebec to see, he was simultaneously wrestling with the fade of his playing career at the too-young age of 33.

Gagne, who turns 34 on Friday, does not have an NHL contract - but he isn't ready or willing to sign retirement papers just yet.

In fact, when TVA contacted him in December about his availability to serve as a panelist for its Olympic broadcasts, he politely declined. He was still in contact with at least one NHL team about playing this season.

"I told them I was not willing to do it, I wasn't sure if I was going to play," Gagne said yesterday in a wide-ranging interview with the Daily News. "I wasn't ready to turn the page to next year. Once I saw that was not going to work out, I thought I might try TV a little bit to see if I like it, maybe it would be fun in the future. I thought the Olympics might be a great moment to start."

With injuries grinding his career to a rapid and unceremonious halt, it is easy to forget exactly how impressive a player Gagne was at his best.

Yes, he was a two-time NHL All-Star (2001, '07) and two-time winner of the Bobby Clarke Trophy (2006, '07) as the Flyers' team MVP. He was named to the NHL's all-rookie team in 2000.

More importantly, he was one of Canada's top 12 forwards for three consecutive best-on-best tournaments: 2002 Olympics, 2005 World Championships (during NHL lockout) and 2006 Olympics. He captured the 2012 Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings - and played in the Cup-clinching game after returning from injury - but few exploits stack up to Salt Lake.

"I have moved around a lot in the last few years, to Florida and to LA and Philly, but the gold medal is one of the things I keep taking with me," Gagne said. "Once in a while, I go look in the box and check to make sure it is still there."

Talking about hockey yesterday confirmed Gagne's desire to still play. Up until December, he was skating three times a day near his house in Quebec City. He has scaled back now, but is still not far from playing shape.

Five months into the season, Gagne still has trouble believing he is not playing with the Flyers this season. When last season ended with eight points in his final 13 games, then-coach Peter Laviolette called Gagne one of the team's best forwards.

All summer, it appeared Gagne was a lock to fill out the Flyers' roster - until he was never invited to training camp. To this day, he feels like he was perhaps strung along.

"It's in the past, but every time I think about it, it's tough to swallow," Gagne said. "I think a lot if it is maybe my fault. I think maybe I had too much confidence in the Flyers.

"I had my meeting with [general manager] Paul Holmgren before the free-agent market opened and he told me to hang tight. I thought I was going to be with the Flyers. That didn't work the way it was supposed to. I made the mistake of telling team employees the Flyers were the only team I wanted to play for this season. I got caught up."

While no one will shed a tear for Gagne - who earned $42.8 million in his 14-year career - he was a victim of loyalty and circumstance. Never before in the NHL had the salary cap gone down, as it decreased by $6 million last summer.

By September, it was tough to get a job elsewhere. No team was willing to offer him a guaranteed contract, though many called with tryout deals. Now, Gagne knows a tryout deal is all that may be left for him this summer.

The risk is Gagne's health. He has 597 points in 799 career games, but he has missed 233 regular-season games and another 43 playoff contests over the years. When he is healthy, Gagne is a talented and clutch scorer - it is impossible to forget his gutty playoff comeback series against Boston in 2010.

"With all of my injuries, I knew the end was going to come at one point," Gagne said. "But watching games, I still believe I can play, I know I could do a lot better than some of these guys. It is all about the health issues in my past. When you give big money to players, you want them to play and not sit on the bench. I totally understand that."

The blessing - and the curse - is that he is completely healthy now. Gagne is thankful his neck, head and groin issues are behind him and he wakes up energized each day to play with his daughter Lily (3) and son Matthew (4). But he is bothered to not have a job.

Gagne is not ready to quit just yet. Bad feelings aside, if last season was his last game in an NHL uniform, he is thrilled it was in Flyers orange.

"I'm keeping my options open," Gagne said. "I'm really glad I had the chance to come back and say a proper goodbye. It's still the best place for a hockey player to play."