Sam Gagner is going from Black Ace to the ace up the sleeve of Canadian head coach Ken Hitchcock.

The 18-year-old Edmonton Oilers rookie will become the fifth-youngest player in Canadian history to skate at the world hockey championship today at 4:30 p.m. at the Metro Centre in the quarter-finals against Norway.

He will step into the lineup for centre Eric Staal, who left the team yesterday morning to be with his family after the death of his 83-year-old grandfather John Staal.

Gagner will trade in his seat in the press box alongside fellow spares Mathieu Garon and Mark Giordano for a spot on the fourth line on the right wing with centre Patrick Sharp.

“I wasn’t expecting this, but at the same time, this is why you come here,” said Gagner, who enjoyed a 49-point NHL rookie campaign. “The amount I’ve learned until now has been great, and getting into a game will only heighten it.”

Gagner, who has made a name for himself with his slick moves and shootout prowess, will not directly replace Staal. That duty falls to Jason Spezza, who will be promoted from the fourth line and centre Martin St. Louis and Derek Roy.

Gagner will fill Spezza’s spot, and Hitchcock plans to give him a look on the second power-play unit.

“He’s worked out hard on his off days, he’s in great shape, and it’s a great opportunity,” Hitchcock said.

For Spezza, it’s a chance for redemption. He started the worlds with St. Louis and Staal before being demoted. He is averaging 10:31 of ice time, third lowest on the team.

“I’ve tried to be smart in my role, but I’d like a bigger role,” he said. “Hopefully we can get something going (against Norway) and you never know what happens from there.”

Staal is expected to rejoin the team for the semifinals, which will be held in Quebec City, should Canada beat Norway today as the tournament comes to a close in Halifax.

Hitchcock said it’s “further motivation” to win today.

“Eric wants to continue to play and join us,” he said. “It’s our obligation to get the team to Quebec City.”


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