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Aces' NHLers prepare to return to The Show

Doyle Woody
Scott Gomez looks to pass in his Alaska Aces debut during second-period action against Colorado Wednesday evening Nov. 14, 2012 at Sullivan Arena. Gomez is among the Aces' NHL players expected to soon return to their teams. Erik Hill

When Scott Gomez awoke in his hotel room in Ontario, Calif., on Sunday morning, technology informed him almost immediately that a pivotal event had happened in his life overnight.

"You know something's going on when you wake up with 26 messages on one (U.S.) phone and then 99 on your Canadian phone,'' Gomez said.

Gomez, the veteran NHL center who like three of his fellow NHLers from Anchorage spent the lockout with the ECHL's Alaska Aces, quickly learned the NHL and the NHL Players' Association reached a tentative agreement to end the labor dispute and play a truncated season.

While Gomez and fellow Aces Brandon Dubinsky, Joey Crabb and Nate Thompson are excited to get back to the NHL -- it's the world's best league and their salaries there are eye-popping -- the end of their time with the Aces left them somewhat forlorn.

To a man, they have said they love playing in front of family and friends at Sullivan Arena and feel a deep sense of pride to play for their hometown team -- they feel invested in the Aces.

In fact, the ECHL required NHLers to buy liability insurance against the NHL contracts before playing in the ECHL. For guys like Gomez, set to make $5.5 million with the Montreal Canadiens this season, and Dubinsky, due $3.75 million from the Columbus Blue Jackets, their ECHL deals with the Aces did not come close to matching their insurance payment, so they were literally paying to play with the Aces.

Still, with a tentative agreement in place and expected to be ratified, Gomez, Dubinsky and Crabb sat out the Aces' 2-1 afternoon win in Ontario. Thompson did not make the road trip.

"It's a little bittersweet right now,'' Dubinsky, 26, said by phone from California. "Listen, playing in the NHL has been my dream my whole life, and I can't wait to get back. We're pumped to be able to get back and excited to get started.

"I'm excited for a fresh start with the Columbus Blue Jackets'' -- the New York Rangers traded Dubinsky last summer -- "and they're excited to have me. The bitter part, not the sweet part, is having to leave Alaska.''

Dubinsky, who as an NHL player representative has been deeply involved in tracking negotiations and keeping NHL teammates abreast of things, didn't get to bed until nearly 3 a.m. PST on Sunday. He, Gomez and Crabb all said it seemed surreal to watch the Aces play in Ontario instead of playing with them.

"It feels like it's Breakup Day, the last day of the season when you're packing up for the year,'' Dubinsky said. "And then it's sort of awkward because now we're headed to another season instead of hitting the golf course.''

Crabb likened the news that the lockout was history to something a kid might experience.

"It's almost like switching schools in the middle of the year,'' he said.

The loss of the four NHLers comes exactly halfway through the Aces' regular season and sucks firepower from their lineup. Entering Sunday, the four had furnished nearly 32 percent of the club's goals.

Crabb, who appeared in 35 games, was the team's leading scorer with 17 goals, 21 assists and 38 points. Dubinsky, Thompson and Gomez all dealt with injuries while with the Aces but proved productive -- Dubinsky went 9-7--16 in 17 games, Thompson generated 7-14--21 totals in 24 games and Gomez furnished 6-7--13 totals in 11 games.

The four never played in the same game. That was because of injuries, Gomez's in-season signing and an ECHL rule that limits teams to four veterans in any game. With the NHLers, the Aces had seven veterans on their roster.

Even so, Aces coach Rob Murray said the NHLers brought more than just obvious talent to the club and leave it a stronger franchise.

"What they brought, and what rubbed off on the guys here, is what it takes to play at that level,'' Murray said. "You could have got a couple of (selfish players) only in it to stay in shape. But these four guys have great pride in being Alaska Aces.

"They came in with the attitude they were going to make this team as good as they can.''

The Aces lead the 23-team ECHL with a 28-8-1 record.

Crabb, who played his college hockey at Colorado College, said he was thrilled to play regularly at Sullivan Arena for his hometown team.

"It was awesome,'' Crabb said. "I had a blast going to the rink. I know everyone always says, 'The guys were great,' but these really are good guys on this team. I got a lot of friends out of this, so it's a little bit of mixed emotions.

"I loved being able to stay around home, and being with family during the holidays was really awesome.''

As of Sunday, it was unclear when NHL teams would conduct shortened training camps or begin the season. The Alaskan NHLers planned to fly home with the Aces on Monday and then sort out their affairs.

For Gomez, the two-time Stanley Cup winner who was the ECHL's Most Valuable Player for the Aces during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, even playing a couple of handfuls of games with the Aces bolstered his belief in himself. Gomez, 33, and Alaska's most accomplished hockey player, is coming off two injury-riddled and low-impact seasons for Montreal.

"I've got the confidence back,'' Gomez said.

Crabb, meanwhile, is headed to a new team -- last summer, he signed a one-year, $950,000 deal with the Washington Capitals after playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs last season. Crabb, 29, said playing for the Aces during the lockout should help him in Washington.

"I feel like I've got a little bit of an edge,'' he said.

Thompson, 28, is scheduled to make $850,000 for the Tampa Bay Lightning. Another NHLer from Anchorage, defenseman Matt Carle, 28, is set to join Thompson in Tampa Bay after signing a four-year, $33 million deal last summer.

With the NHLers gone, the Aces only have three veterans -- winger Matt Robinson and defensemen Steve Ward and Sean Curry. That leaves Murray with a veteran slot to fill, should he find a player to his liking.

Robinson could be the biggest beneficiary among remaining Aces. As a veteran forward, he was often the odd-man out -- he played just 16 of the first 36 games -- but should get ample opportunity to regain his goal-scoring touch. Sunday, for example, he stepped into Crabb's vacated spot at left wing on a line with Nick Mazzolini and Garry Nunn.

Many of the remaining Aces will have expanded roles -- more power-play and penalty-killing time -- and more will be expected of them.

And while the four NHLers will soon be gone, they'll be paying attention to the rest of Alaska's season.

"We'll definitely be keeping in touch and keeping tabs on the boys,'' Dubinsky said.


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