Nate Thompson and Joey Crabb have been tight since they were little kids playing mite hockey together for the Anchorage North Stars. Last spring, the two NHL forwards, life-long friends, were reunited as linemates and roommates with Team USA at the World Championships.
Friday, Thompson and Crabb became teammates again -- with the Alaska Aces.
With both players among hundreds of NHLers displaced by the league's lockout, Crabb signed a contract with the ECHL Aces. Thompson, who signed a professional tryout agreement (PTO), said he intends to sign a contract with the club soon.
As the Aces opened training camp Friday morning at Ben Boeke Arena, they were once again beneficiaries of a lockout in the world's best league.
NHL center Scott Gomez of Anchorage played for the Aces during the 2004-05 lockout and led the ECHL in scoring and was voted the circuit's Most Valuable Player. Gomez, who practiced with the Aces under a PTO on Friday, has said he doesn't intend to play for them again and is just trying to stay fit and sharp.
In Thompson, who turns 28 next week, and Crabb, 29, the Aces gained the services of two guys who have played more than 400 combined NHL games. Thompson has played four full NHL seasons, most recently for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Crabb last season cracked the NHL full-time with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in July signed a one-year deal with the Washington Capitals.
They said playing for their hometown team, which competes in a league two steps below the NHL, made sense.
Thompson said he tracks the Aces' progress online during the season and recalls watching the club at Sullivan Arena on its journey to the 2006 Kelly Cup.
"I kind of grew up in this rink, watching the (UAA) Seawolves and Aces, so this is a special place for me,'' Thompson said after practice, standing outside the Aces' dressing room at Sullivan. "I feel like I'm continuing to get better in my career and I feel I'm in my, quote-unquote, prime years, and this is a good opportunity.
"I get to play in front of friends, family, my fiancee. It's all about having fun. We love to play hockey. And if the lockout ends, we hit the ground running. If not, we play in front of 6,000 fans at Sullivan Arena.''
Crabb watched Kelly Cup games at Sullivan in 2011, when the Aces were on their way to their second ECHL championship. Like Thompson, he's at a pivotal point in his career.
"I just want to keep playing,'' Crabb said. "Obviously, it's an easy decision when you've got a great organization in your hometown. It's all about staying on the ice, and having fun too. There's not many chances to play for your hometown team.''
Gomez, 32, played for the Aces after he had already won two Stanley Cups and been named the NHL's Rookie of the Year, yet he still says his season back home remains one of the highlights of his career.
While many locked-out NHL players have opted to play for pro teams in Europe, additions like Thompson and Crabb are rare in the ECHL. NHL defenseman Paul Mara has signed with the Ontario (Calif.) Reign, who like the Aces play in the ECHL's Western Conference.
Neither Thompson nor Crabb have ever played in the ECHL. Both played extensively in the American Hockey League, one step below the NHL. Thompson played for the Providence Bruins when Aces coach Rob Murray was an assistant coach with the Boston Bruins farm team.
Murray, naturally, is excited to have two NHLers on his club.
"Time will tell, but you'd be stupid to think they won't improve your chances of winning games,'' Murray said.
If there were any doubts about how serious Thompson and Crabb are -- they didn't ascend to the NHL because they are indifferent -- they were dismissed late in Friday's practice.
The two engaged in a brief dust-up during a drill -- no punches thrown -- and later exchanged words before cooling down and laughing about it.
"We're both competitors,'' Thompson said.
"Obviously, we're buddies, and have been,'' Crabb said. "We're just two competitive guys.''
ECHL guidelines -- and common sense -- required Crabb and Thompson to buy insurance to cover their NHL contracts before they could skate with the Aces. Crabb was scheduled to make $950,000 this season for the Capitals and Thompson was scheduled to make $850,000 with Tampa Bay.
Published reports have indicated that insurance to cover an NHL contract runs as high as $25,000 per $1 million. Given the pay structure in the ECHL -- with a weekly salary cap of $12,400 and 20 active players, that averages to $620 a week per player -- skating in the ECHL is likely a financial wash, at best, for Thompson and Crabb.
Simply playing hockey is paramount for both players, they said.
"Not only do we want to have fun,'' Thompson said, "we want to win games.''
For the Aces and the locked-out NHLers, the whole situation appears win-win.
"I think it definitely creates a buzz in our hockey community,'' said Jerry Mackie, one of the Aces' owners. "The benefit in the hockey community is not only for these guys and their friends and families getting to see them play, but also for kids who want to get where these guys have. They get to see them play live.
"These guys are not playing for money, let's be honest. It has to come from within. These guys really view this as giving something back to the community.''
Both Thompson and Crabb are considered "veterans'' in the ECHL, which applies that status to any skater -- goaltenders are exempt -- who begins the season with more than 260 pro regular-season games played. Each ECHL team is permitted to play a maximum of four veterans in a game, and the Aces now have five -- defensemen Steve Ward and Sean Curry, and winger Matt Robinson, also are veterans.
Provided all five remain healthy, Murray would have to sit out one veteran in each game.
A new ECHL rule that changes the injured-reserve process will make it easier to move players in and out of the lineup from night-to-night. Previously, teams could have one player on the three-day injured reserve and one on the seven-day injured reserve. A player on either list was ineligible to play in games for the applicable time period.
Under the new rule that abolished the three-day and seven-day lists and allows each team two players on the "reserve'' list, a player can be removed from the reserve list at any time and put on the list of 20 active players. For instance, a player put on the reserve list on Friday would be ineligible to play that night, but could play the next night. Under the old system, he would have been ineligible for games Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
In any event, Murray said he'll deal with the math when the season arrives in two weeks.
As potential problems go, that's not a big worry for a coach who just added two NHL players to his club.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.