It started off as a few here, a few there. Over time, more and more players followed suit, packing their skates, their sticks and taking their skills to far-off cities in Europe and Russia during the NHL’s lockout. However, for four forwards from Anchorage, the chance to go home was too good to pass up.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Washington Capitals forward Joey Crabb of spending the fall as a member of the East Coast Hockey League’s Alaska Aces. “Spending the holidays with my family ... it’s been over 15 years since I’ve gotten to do that.”
Despite playing on the game’s biggest stage for six years, Nate Thompson initially felt the spotlight upon returning to Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena.
“The first couple of games I was actually pretty nervous playing at home just because you’re playing in front of family and friends,” said Thompson, a center with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Brandon Dubinsky felt it, too.
“There’s nothing that can ever replicate playing the game,” Gomez said. “It was just too hard watching it.”
With their stable of NHLers, the Aces got off to a hot start and found themselves with one of the best records in the ECHL.
“There’s two ways to look at it,” said Aces head coach and former NHLer Rob Murray. “These guys could come and just be around and keep playing just so that they can stay in shape, you know, in the event of the lockout ending. But, in my mind, you’ve got Crabb and Thompson, Gomez, Dubinsky -- all four of these guys -- they’re invested in the team.”
“You got to give them credit for the willingness to play at a lower level against younger players that are ultimately vying for their job in the NHL,” said Brad Ralph, head coach of the Aces’ Mountain Division rival, the Idaho Steelheads.
“They’re certainly not doing it as a financial incentive,” said Aces co-owner Jerry Mackie. “Just the insurance that they have to have and they have to purchase themselves is as much, or -- certainly in some cases with the higher contracts -- a lot more than what they’ll make playing here.”
For Dubinsky, playing at home has come at an additional cost. Twelve games into the campaign, the center’s season was derailed when he broke his hand blocking a shot during a penalty kill. At the time, he led the Aces in points. The Blue Jackets could suspend Dubinsky if the lockout is settled soon.
Even though he’s been sidelined, Dubinsky hasn’t disappeared. Both he and the other three NHLers have taken on leadership roles by helping their younger teammates hone their craft.
“You can say as a coach, ‘Hey, this is what you need to do to get to the next level,’” said Murray, “but when you have it illustrated for you on a daily basis by these NHL guys, you know, all of a sudden there should be a light that goes off in these guys’ heads.”
That light has gone off for one of the younger Aces.
William Wrenn was San Jose’s first selection -- taken in the second round -- in the 2009 NHL draft. This season the two-way defenseman attended training camp in Worcester, Mass., with the Sharks’ American Hockey League affiliate, but was a camp casualty because of the NHL lockout.
“My exit meeting, they told me that I played well ... but that just basically the numbers are tight this year,” Wrenn said.
An Anchorage native himself, Wrenn was given the option to play for San Jose’s ECHL affiliate in San Francisco or to come home and begin his professional career with the Aces. He chose the latter, where the veteran Gomez has taken him under his wing from time to time.
“Scott’s gotten on me a couple of times about just taking control of the game when I have the puck,” Wrenn said. “You know, being confident in my decisions.”
The pep talks have paid off. Through 29 games, the young blueliner had 14 points (5 goals, 9 assists) and is just two off from matching the point total he put up in his final regular season of major junior hockey last season.
The time in Anchorage has also enabled the NHL Aces to help out in other ways. Separated from its closest neighboring states by Canada and the Pacific Ocean, Alaska -- made up of 730,000 people, nearly half of whom live in or around Anchorage -- is often left to look from within for leaders and strength in times of need, something the four NHLers from Anchorage haven’t forgotten.
“There’s no question,” Gomez said. “Alaskans, we take care of our own.”
It’s not just talk for Gomez. His nonprofit foundation is giving 75 boys and girls in the Frontier State the chance to play hockey this season by paying for fees and gear.
Anchorage houses Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the state’s largest military installation. In November, the Aces hosted a military appreciation weekend. For Thompson, it was a chance to interact with the base’s Air Force and Army members as well as individuals from other service branches who have made a lasting impression.
“They sacrifice so much for us and the country,” Thompson said. “Getting to meet them and talk to them and really try and give back to them that weekend was pretty cool.”
For Dubinsky, giving back to his hometown took on additional meaning. Like many professional sports teams, the Aces work with area schools to promote reading, exercise, proper nutrition and anti-bullying; however, when the center stepped inside the halls of one Anchorage school, it was done to pay a special visit to his 11-year-old stepbrother’s class.
“It was cool,” Dubinsky said. “I think he felt ... sort of like the big dog on campus for the next day or two.”
“He went and did that all on his own, which I thought was fabulous,” said Diane Johnson, an Anchorage School District employee who doubles as the coordinator of the Aces’ Skate Into Reading program.
Dubinsky signed autographs, talked to and fielded questions from the group of preteens he deemed to be a “much harder” crowd than the professionals paid to write about his career. One boy even compared stats.
“Did you score any hat tricks last year?” the boy asked Dubinsky.
“No, I didn’t,” Dubinsky replied.
“Well," the boy said, "I scored two.”
Johnson and others in the community recognize the star status that the four players have at home and how their involvement with the community continues to go a long way, yet Dubinsky knows the size of his and his teammates’ actions in the big picture.
“I’m not going out trying to save the world here," Dubinsky said. "It’s just subtle things.”