CHICAGO -- Same game, different language for Scott Gomez.
Gomez, the player who twice brought the Stanley Cup home to Anchorage, has spoken hockey very well from his youngest days growing up in Alaska. Now he is learning to say puck, stick and goal in French.
When you pull on the storied red, white and blue uniform of the Canadiens, you belong to the people of Quebec. When you skate for Montreal, you lend a piece of your soul to history. You are part of a continuum, a link between today and the century-old club team of 1909 before there even was a National Hockey League, a link between the 2009 Northeast Division and Howie Morenz, "Rocket" Richard and Guy LaFleur.
In his 10th season in the league, Gomez thought he knew what the NHL was all about. He was part of two Stanley Cup champions in New Jersey and enjoyed the bright lights of Broadway with the New York Rangers. But since being traded to Montreal in June in a seven-player swap, Gomez has learned the difference between the big time and THE BIG TIME. In Quebec, they believe the Canadiens invented ice.
"Hockey," Gomez said outside the visitors' locker room at the United Center on Friday before Montreal lost 3-2 to the Chicago Blackhawks, "is the No. 1 thing. It's almost a religion."
The only argument Gomez might get about that assessment would be the use of his qualifier "almost." It is one thing to be a Canadian and quite another to be a Canadien.
Gomez, 29, is no longer the giddy teenager departing East High and Anchorage at 16 to play junior hockey, then breaking into the NHL at 19. He is a seasoned veteran. His resume includes a rookie-of-the-year award, those two Stanley Cups, a U.S. Olympic team berth (with perhaps a second come January), and career highs of 33 goals and 84 points.
As the first player in NHL history of Latin American heritage, Gomez has Spanish in his blood, is articulate in English, and is now trying to become tri-lingual. Since joining the Canadiens, he takes French lessons. He thought it was a wise thing to do.
Indeed, while amassing a record 24 Stanley Cups, Canadien players have been revered. But French-Canadien players are seen as gods. No American will ever be accepted into the Francophile pantheon of adoration, but one who shows interest in the culture gets bonus points.
"It's important," Gomez said of trying to pick up French. "I'm living in their country. It's a personal choice."
As a center wearing his flashy No. 91 jersey, Gomez scored eight points in his first 13 Canadiens games. As a linguist, he is still a work in progress. So far, he said, he can order water in French. And he can say, "Je m'appelle Scott Gomez, je ne parle pas le Francais." Which means, "My name is Scott Gomez and I don't speak French."
It's a start.
Montreal coach Jacques Martin -- who conducts bilingual press conferences -- said he knows Gomez is trying to grasp the language.
"It shows he is committed to the team and the organization," said Martin. "He takes pride in his stature in the community."
Gomez's stature remains off the charts in Alaska, his permanent home and the place where he spends the summer. He used to get recognized walking down the street in New Jersey, even though there were hardly any streets to walk down near the Devils' arena. But being a Canadiens in Canada brings an entire new stratospheric level of notoriety.
The Yankees may be the Yankees, but New York also has the Jets, the Mets, the Knicks, the Rangers and the Giants. If you get weary of the Yankees, change the channel. In Montreal, the Canadiens are the No. 1 game in town. No. 2 is a CFL team called the Alouettes.
Gomez can expect to get writer's cramp from signing autographs whenever he ventures out of his apartment.
"You only live once," he said of avoiding becoming a recluse. "It just might mean you walk a little bit faster on the street."
There is a bit of irony that the son of Mexican-Colombian-American parents heralded as the first Latino in the NHL is learning French. Gomez embraces the Hispanic part of his being.
"I'm proud of it," he said, "but it's their story. If any Hispanic kid responds to it and says, 'I can play hockey,' that's great. But it's great if that kid is Chinese or something else."
Gomez is a more mature version of the boy who left home more than a decade ago because of his hockey skills. His head is shaved now instead of covered by thick hair. He can't believe he will turn 30 two days before Christmas. But in other ways he has not changed.
"Alaska is my home," he said.
Twice after the Devils won the Stanley Cup, Gomez brought the best-known trophy in team sports home to Anchorage for grand celebrations. He would like to have that privilege again before he retires.
"We got spoiled for a while," he said. "In Anchorage, they know how to do it right. If I win another Cup, that's the first place it's going."
By LEW FREEDMAN
Daily News correspondent
Alaska Dispatch Publishing