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Now That’s Hockey

Times Staff Writer

Scott Gomez hadn’t lied to his New Jersey Devil teammates. He had merely omitted certain facts.

A few Devil pals called from New York, where they had gathered for an exhibition game during the NHL lockout. There was some good-natured teasing about Gomez’s decision to join the Alaska Aces -- playing for, get this, $500 a week -- and bounce around the hockey backwater that is the ECHL.

Gomez was ready for this.

“I said, ‘Hey guys, I’ve been in Las Vegas for three days now,’ ” Gomez said, laughing.

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He was indeed, basking in that ECHL perk, a trip to the Strip to play the Las Vegas Wranglers.

Of course, before that Gomez had been in Fresno. Before that, San Diego. Before that, Bakersfield. All part of the Aces’ two-week bus tour of the ECHL’s West Coast portion.

“Yeah, I kind of left that out,” Gomez said.

This is the barnstorming lifestyle Gomez relishes for now. He has returned home, helping to pack the 6,000-seat Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, where as a kid he once sat, munching popcorn, watching his hometown heroes.

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Anchorage is where his hockey life began and where he goes every off-season to renew that connection. His Anchorage roots are so deep, he owns the house he grew up in.

Twice he has brought the Stanley Cup to Anchorage for viewing. Now, he has brought the skills that helped New Jersey win the Cup.

“That was the main thing, being able to go home and play some hockey,” said Gomez, who won the Calder Trophy, given to the NHL’s rookie of the year, in 1999-2000. “I wanted to give back to the community. That was what was important to me.

“I’m really having fun. I like waking up, knowing two points are on the line that night. The Devils have rules. I’m not used to being able to wear bluejeans on a day off on the road. The other day, I stole a pillow from the hotel so I could sleep on the bus. I’m enjoying a little freedom.”

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So while more than one-third of the NHL players have gone to Europe, playing in cities found in travel brochures, Gomez has been commuting along the California byways and highways the last two weeks, stopping last weekend in Long Beach, where the Aces played the Ice Dogs.

Gomez had one goal and seven points in eight games before last weekend, a stretch that was more or less like training camp for the 24-year-old forward. After all, he had not skated in a game in two months, since playing for Team USA in the World Cup, when he signed Oct. 25, just four days before the Aces’ opener at Sullivan Arena.

“I had forgotten how big the ice was there,” said Gomez, who had not played a game on it since his East High team lost the state championship game there in 1996. “I was dying after the first period.”

The sellout crowd helped revive him. That he was center stage was supported by the team’s having sold more than 2,000 tickets for the opener in the four days after Gomez signed.

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The Aces won the opener over San Diego, 3-2, in a shootout. Gomez assisted on the tying goal.

“Scott asked me if this was going to be big, and I said, ‘Well, yeah,’ ” said Ace forward Mike Lee, who was Gomez’s high school teammate. “The whole town went absolutely crazy. Having Scott back was like having their own son come home.”

This was made possible by the NHL owners’ lockout. Gomez would be making $2.9 million playing for the Devils this season, a contract won in arbitration for his 2003-04 season. He scored 14 goals and tied for the NHL lead with 56 assists.

With this season shelved, at least for the time being, Gomez accepted an invitation from Devil teammate Igor Larionov to visit Khimik, Russia, and consider playing for Voskresensk, the professional team that Larionov began his career with in 1977. Gomez quickly realized that he wouldn’t play in Russia but the visit sparked another idea.

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“This was Igor’s hometown,” Gomez said. “I saw the reception he got from the people there. I wanted to be home.”

Home he went, signing a deal that was more or less equivalent to player per diem in the NHL at a time when league representatives were portraying the players as greedy and selfish.

Gomez, the state’s two-time high school player of the year, filled a slot set aside for a veteran player -- teams in the ECHL have four such slots -- so he did not steal a roster spot from another player. He also was required by the league to buy his own insurance, at $25,000.

“I figured, one day if I ever run for mayor, this is always going to look good for me,” Gomez joked at a news conference.

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Still, the Aces sold 37 season tickets the day he signed, a vox populi statement.

“It was the ultimate compliment to Alaskans,” Ace Coach Davis Payne said. “Until you become an Alaskan, you don’t understand that the most important thing to Alaskans is Alaskans.”

Not that Gomez didn’t take a little heat from his teammates ... those back on the East Coast and those in the ECHL.

“The first time he looked at the schedule and saw we had a seven-hour bus ride, he was like, ‘Are you serious?’ ” Lee said. “Hey, it was a long bus ride for us too. Welcome to the East Coast Hockey League.”

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