ANCHORAGE, ALASKA — As a veteran of five NHL seasons, Brandon Dubinsky of Anchorage has played in the best hockey league in the world, against the best players in the world, in the best venues in the world and in the cauldron that is the Stanley Cup playoffs.
He knows pressure.
Yet, shortly after 7 p.m. Monday, he sat on a folding chair near the Alaska Aces’ entrance to the rink at Sullivan Arena, fighting his nerves as he waited to take the ice for his first game in the ECHL, and an exhibition game at that.
Next to him sat linemate Matt Robinson, a minor-league veteran who has returned to the club after several seasons away.
“Man, I’m nervous,’’ Dubinsky said.
“Me too,’’ Robinson replied, and held up one hand.
Robinson’s hand shook.
Family and friends were on hand to see Dubinsky play at Sullivan for the first time since he was in high school. With the NHL lockout keeping him from his regular job with the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Aces’ Cowbell Crew of fans psyched he’s playing for their club, plus all those “unspoken expectations,’’ as Dubinsky put it, he felt uneasy as the Las Vegas Wranglers awaited.
“Man, it was nerve-wracking,’’ Dubinsky said. “It was like, no concept of puck control for the first little while. Then, like anything, you settle in.’’
Still, there was no denying his nervousness, he said. Most Aces games begin at 7:15 p.m. and players are supposed to arrive at the rink by 5:15 p.m. Dubinsky said he showed up at 4:15 p.m.
Fellow NHLer Joey Crabb of Anchorage, who skated on Dubinsky’s right wing, said he likewise felt anxious.
“It’s just different when you’re at home, playing in front of your hometown fans, and you’re always nervous for any first game of any season, especially with a new team,’’ Crabb said.
Dubinsky and Crabb contributed to Alaska’s 3-2 victory before an announced crowd of 4,706, as did new goaltender Mark Guggenberger with 26 saves. Dubinsky furnished an assist on Robinson’s power-play goal to forge a 2-2 tie in the second period and was strong on the puck. Crabb played a simple, effective game, and he cleared the puck from the Aces’ zone just before the buzzer, when Las Vegas owned a 6-on-4 advantage because it pulled goaltender Joe Fallon for an extra attacker and Dubinsky was in the penalty box for delay of game.
Scott Gomez understood how Dubinsky and Crabb felt.
Gomez, the NHL veteran and two-time Stanley Cup winner who played for the Aces during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, said he was more nervous for his first game at Sullivan that season, when he led the ECHL in scoring, than he had been since he was a 19-year-old NHL rookie.
And Nate Thompson, the NHLer from Anchorage who is scheduled to play for the Aces in Tuesday night’s exhibition against Las Vegas, between periods Monday said he was already fighting nerves.
“And watching isn’t helping,’’ he said with a grin.
Nerves are good sign, though, an indication the player has something at stake. Dubinsky, Crabb and Thompson want to do well in their hometown and help their new club. They’re pro athletes who have played at the pinnacle of their sport, and they did not ascend to that position by being indifferent.
If you don’t have those nerves for the first game, Robinson said, that’s a bad sign – “Time to get a 9-to-5,’’ he said.
While the NHL is the best league in the world –- well, you know, when hockey is actually being played on that circuit –- the ECHL is a good, solid league. Dubinsky, Crabb and Thompson are not going to dominate like in some video game.
“These are good hockey players,’’ Dubinsky said. “It’s only two leagues away (from the NHL). It’s not like I’m playing against kids. These are grown men, pro athletes.’’
Both NHLers appreciated the support of the fans as they skated on the pink ice that marks the Aces’ “Paint the Rink Pink’’ annual promotion to benefit breast cancer awareness and treatment.
“It was awesome, so cool,’’ Dubinsky said.
Crabb played at Sullivan several times in college, when he skated for Colorado College. But he was always on the visiting team playing UAA, so he was accustomed to most fans being against him.
“And half of 'em were my buddies,’’ he cracked. “Tonight, you could hear the fans supporting us.’’
Murray said the NHLers will have to adjust to level of talent around them, and in the league. He didn’t mean that in a bad way. It’s just a different league for these guys, so it’s a slightly different game.
He liked what he saw from Dubinsky and Crabb.
“When Dubinsky had the puck, he was playing keep-away,’’ Murray said. “And Joey is just so solid.’’
Dubinsky and Crabb got those first-game jitters out of the way –- Dubinsky called it “fun pressure’’ -- just as Thompson will do Tuesday night.
Dubinsky said he’s approaching his stint in the ECHL, however long it lasts, with purpose.
“I’m taking it 100 percent as serious as I would an NHL game,’’ he said. “If I don’t, I’m cheating myself and cheating (my teammates).’’
Yes, expectations are high. And Gomez, ever the kidder, mused very tongue-in-cheek during a between-periods conversation that included Thompson, that such expectations aren’t really that over-the-top for Anchorage boys with NHL credentials returning home to play for their hometown club in the ECHL.
“There’s no pressure,’’ Gomez laughed. “I was only MVP of the league.’’
This column is the opinion of Daily News reporter Doyle Woody. Find his blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
Shuffling the deck
Returning Aces center Zach Harrison was very effective and received a ton of ice time.
He furnished an assist and was among the penalty killers who erased all six Wranglers power plays.
Aces forward Tim Hall was knocked out of the game after less than seven minutes when he was hit hard in the neutral zone by Las Vegas captain Mike Madill.
Hall bounced back up quickly and headed to the bench, but soon headed to the dressing room for the night. Alaska coach Rob Murray said Hall is day-to-day.
Madill, who has never racked more than 60 penalty minutes in any of his five ECHL seasons, received a match penalty for contact to the head.
New forward Tommy Mele and returning defenseman Danny Markowitz each delivered one goal and one assist.
Murray watched the game from a table stationed between the lower bowl and the balcony section. NHL center Scott Gomez of Anchorage, who played for the Aces during the 2004-05 NHL lockout and is practicing with them to stay fit, sat next to Murray and the two occasionally conferred.
Also watching the game from that table were NHLer Nate Thompson, who is expected to play for the Aces on Tuesday night; Aces defenseman Steve Ward and center Nick Mazzolini, who are scheduled to play Tuesday; and Aces goaltender Gerald Coleman, who is out for the early season while rehabbing from offseason hip surgery.
Meanwhile, assistant coaches Scott Burt and Louis Mass ran the bench, with Burt running the forwards and Mass running the defensemen.
Both teams dressed 20 players of 18 skaters and two goalies. In the regular season, teams are limited to dressing 18 players — 16 skaters and two goalies.
Las Vegas 1 1 0 — 2
Aces 1 2 0 — 3
First Period — 1, Aces, Mele (Markowitz, Wrenn), 6:14; 2, Las Vegas, Campbell (Jillson), 17:50. Penalties — Madill, Las Vegas, match penalty (contact to head), 6:39; Ambroz, Aces (slashing), 10:54; Fallon, Las Vegas, served by Schiller (roughing), 10:54; Campbell, Las Vegas (high-sticking), 15:32; Molle, Aces, major (fighting), 19:14; Sabky, Las Vegas, major (fighting), 19:14.
Second Period — 3, Las Vegas, Wiles (Campbell, Blackwater), :40; 4, Aces, Robinson (Dubinsky, Syvret), 2:38 (pp); 5, Aces, Markowitz (Harrison, Mele), 13:10 (pp). Penalties — Francis, Las Vegas (slashing), 2:20; Reddick, Las Vegas (hooking), 5:44; Sinkewich, Aces (holding), 7:24; Springer, Las Vegas (interference), 8:35; Schweda, Las Vegas (holding), 11:14; Orlando, Aces (slashing), 13:25; Sinkewich, Aces, minor-major, served by Ischii (boarding, fighting), 18:45; Sarauer, Las Vegas, major (fighting), 18:45.
Third Period — None. Penalties — Crabb, Aces (high-sticking), 6:23; Reddick, Las Vegas (cross-checking), 16:32; Dubinsky, Aces (delay of game), 19:45.
Shots on goal — Las Vegas 10-8-10—28. Aces 7-8-5--20.
Power-play Opportunities — Las Vegas 0 of 6. Aces 2 of 7.
Goalies — Las Vegas, Fallon (20 shots-17 saves). Aces, Guggenberger (28-26).
A — 4,706 (6,399). T – 2:26.
Referee — Mike McBain. Linesmen — Steve Glines, Travis Jackson.