ANCHORAGE, USA – This is not a story of rugged men playing hockey on the frozen rivers in the great Alaskan wilderness.
And, there are no Hollywood actors or New York City producers concocting hockey mythology here.
Nope, this is not Mystery, Alaska.
Instead, it’s the tale of four NHL players – Scott Gomez, Brandon Dubinsky, Joey Crabb and Nate Thompson – returning home during the lockout, back to their hockey beginnings, to skate for the Alaska Aces of the ECHL.
The Aces are based in Anchorage, a city situated above the 60th Parallel (further north than European capitals Stockholm and Helsinki), so its geographical climate is fertile for producing first-rate hockey, though often overshadowed by other American municipalities such as Minneapolis or Boston.
“Anchorage is a special place. Growing up, you eat, breath and dream about playing hockey. Every school and every park has an outdoor rink,” explained Gomez.
Gomez, who normally wears the bleu-blanc-rouge sweater of the Montreal Canadiens, is donning the Alaska Ace jersey for a second time.
“It’s a fortunate opportunity to come back to Anchorage in the winter and play in front of family and friends. Going overseas to play is not always what it’s cracked up to be and I’m happy to be here playing hockey while keeping my skills up,” Gomez added.
During the 2004-05 NHL lockout, under similar circumstances, Gomez led the Aces with 86 points (13 goals, 73 assists) en route to an ECHL Division title for the team and the individual accolade of being named the league’s Most Valuable Player.
This time around, Gomez is joined by Brandon Dubinsky, Nate Thompson and Joey Crabb, all of whom await the verdict of the current lockout situation, along with the rest of the NHL
Of the four new teammates, Gomez is the most decorated Alaskan hockey player, winning the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2000 with 19 goals and 51 assists as the New Jersey Devils won their second Stanley Cup in six seasons. Three years later, Gomez and the Devils once again hoisted Lord Stanley’s prized trophy triumphantly above their heads.
In terms of Alaskan distinctions, Gomez was twice named high school player of the year while at Anchorage-East and won a state title during his sophomore campaign.
The 32-year-old center also boasts 686 points in 902 NHL games (which includes time with the New York Rangers along with the Devils and Canadiens), the most of any player born in “the last frontier.”
Thus, returning to Alaska is not just a homecoming coronation for Gomez, but also a celebration for a state rich in hockey tradition.
“This [Anchorage] is a hockey hotbed. We might not get the credit, but we have six guys playing in the NHL. That’s a credit to a great minor system and great coaching. I’m just glad I can come back, help the Aces win and give back to this community,” remarked Gomez.
That’s a sentiment echoed by his new teammate, Joey Crabb, who inked a new deal with Washington in the off-season, but like the others, is enjoying his time at home playing hockey in the ECHL while he waits to skate for the Capitals.
“People might not think of Alaska as a hockey state like they do others, but we have a small population, so in terms of producing talent we’re doing pretty well per-capita,” Crabb boasted.
For Crabb, 29, his time back home with the Aces serves as opportunity to continue the momentum of his career-high 26-point (11 goals, 15 assists) performance last year with the Toronto Maple Leafs in practically his first full NHL season.
“Playing for the Aces gives me the chance to play in all situations, including the power play, which I don’t get a chance to do in the NHL. I can continue to hone my skills and stay sharp,” said Crabb.
Crabb left his Anchorage home at the fragile age of 16 to pursue his hockey future after playing just one year at Dimond High School, so it’s been an enjoyable homecoming for the right winger.
Crabb said: “I haven’t been home during the winter in about 15 years. It’s really special to come back an play hockey in front of a crowd filled with family and friends.”
Asked if there was any “celebrity status” for an NHLer returning home, Crabb explained, “It’s nothing like playing in Toronto (his former team) where everyone recognizes you in public. In Anchorage, I’m just the boy from down the street that everyone knew growing up. I’m not treated any differently.”
Last season brought another bright spot for Crabb as the winger made his first World Championship appearance for the United States, contributing three assists in Team USA’s run before bowing out to Finland in the quarter-finals.
He played with Nate Thompson of the Tampa Bay Lightning on that World Championship team, and is once again reunited with his fellow Anchorageite as an Ace.
Thompson shares Gomez and Crabb’s feelings on lacing up his skates with the Aces.
“It’s a lot of fun to come back and play with the guys I grew up with in this community and in front of family and friends,” Thompson aid. “I haven’t been in Anchorage during the winter for 10 years.”
The 27-year-old Thompson was originally drafted by the Boston Bruins in 2003, but his future NHL team could be in doubt. He finds himself in the last year of a two-year deal with the Lightning. Therefore, playing at home during the lockout brings a reprieve from the stress associated with free agency.
“The community has been awesome – it’s very tight knit and everyone is happy to have us come back and play. With everything so up in the air, it’s great to have the stability here at home. Overall it’s been a very positive reaction and a positive impact on this community,” Thompson further explained.
Besides the community, there is another individual happy to be reacquainted with Thompson and the other NHLers wearing the Aces uniform.
Head Coach Rob Murray and Thompson were together with the Providence Bruins (AHL) in 2006-07, Murray as Assistant Coach and Thompson as Captain. That same year Thompson made his NHL debut with Boston, the parent club.
“There’s no doubt that the ECHL and the Aces have benefited from having these high-skill players back. They’ve been such professionals on and off the ice, helping this team in more ways than just winning,” said Murray, now in his second year as the headman in Alaska.
The Aces are used to winning without the NHL players, capturing the ECHL title the past two years, but Murray says his other players are doing more than just winning this year, they’re learning about hockey professionalism from the pros.
“For my younger players, this is an education unlike any you’ll ever receive in your hockey career,” Murray asserted. “They’re learning what it takes to win and how to further their career.”
In some senses, the NHL players were actually attempting to do too much. “They thought they had to score on every shift or make the perfect play every time. I told them to just play like normal,” Murray joked. “They’re totally invested in this thing along with giving back to the younger players,” he continued.
Coach Murray knows a thing or two about hockey fever. Raised in Toronto, Murray played in the NHL with Washington, Winnipeg and Phoenix along with several seasons in the AHL.
But, of all the places he’s seen hockey played, Murray says Anchorage stands out as a truly passionate hockey city.
“This place resembles a Canadian city in terms of hockey,” he said. “There are outdoor rinks everywhere, passionate fans and great coaching. My son is 11 and playing here in the minor leagues and I’m very impressed with the system.”
That’s exactly the same system that delivered Gomez, Crabb, Dubinsky and Thompson to the NHL and the one they’re so proud to reinvest in now back home in Anchorage.
Notes: Brandon Dubinsky was unavailable for comment on this piece as he broke his finger in a Nov. 10 matchup with Las Vegas...He led the team in scoring before the injury and has not played since...Dubinksy was traded to the Columbus Blue Jackets as part of the Rick Nash trade in the off-season...Three other NHL players hail from Alaska: Ty Conklin, Tim Wallace and Matt Carle...ECHL regulations limit teams to playing four veterans per game; any player with over 260 professional games is considered a veteran.