Scott Gomez was talking on a cell phone, the team bus rolling north on Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and Bakersfield. It was late Monday night, and a long, long way from those reclining seats and 5-star entrees on the New Jersey Devils charter flights. Behind the Alaska Aces bus, they could still hear the thunderous weekend sellouts reverberating back in Anchorage, back where the favorite son had come home a hockey hero.
"I almost feel like a rookie again," Gomez said with a laugh.
Gomez is playing in the ECHL, back to the bushes, and within a week on the job, everything he suspected has been validated. He will never feel a moment of regret for the $500,000 contract offers he turned down to spend the NHL lockout in Europe. Never. He will never regret choosing $500 a week job with the Aces and vending machines for room service. Truth be told, Gomez wishes everyone in the National Hockey League had the chance to return to their roots this way, to wear their hometown colors and listen to the longest, loudest ovations of their lives.
Gomez wishes everyone could feel the warmth of the spotlight in a place where there's such cold and darkness.
"Alaskans take care of their own," Gomez said. "And they've given me so much support through the years, I just thought this would be a way for me to give something back to them. I've been fortunate to play five years in the NHL, and never dreamed of making the money I have. I just wasn't going to pass up the chance to play hockey at home."
There was a moment on Friday night at Sullivan Arena in Anchorage when Gomez skated onto the ice before an opening-night sellout of 6,453 fans -- they refused to stop standing and screaming. They refused to stop cheering for him. They refused to stop thanking his family sitting in the stands. They refused to stop tugging at his heart, the way they've done throughout his rise to stardom in the NHL.
"They were standing hours before the game, waiting to get in," his father, Carlos, said. "The reaction has been overwhelming. Unless you live in Alaska, it's really hard to understand the bond between Scott and the people here."
Back home, the biggest Alaskan sports story of the year had been so disappointing to the state: Juneau's Carlos Boozer had gone against every value of the hard-working people there, reneging on a promise and getting greedy on his way out of Cleveland for Utah. As it turned out, Gomez turned out to be the Anti-Boozer, turning down the overseas money for the hometown love. Anchorage hadn't seen him play before its eyes for seven years, ever since he left for junior's after winning a state championship as a high school sophomore. He lives in Anchorage in the offseason, and twice used his allotted weekend with the Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003 to celebrate at home.
Yet, Gomez was careful to make sure the hysteria to get him into an Aces uniform didn't stampede some unsuspecting minor-league player. First of all, the Aces are an independent team, without an affiliation to an NHL franchise and this allowed him the blessing of the NHLPA. Secondly, Gomez's father is a union ironworker and sone of a Mexican migrant farm-worker. So before Gomez tightened a single lace, father and son had to be clear on something with Aces general manager and coach Davis Payne.
"They were adamant that this wouldn't cost anybody an opportunity or a job," Payne said. "We were going to carry 20 guys and now we're carrying 21 because of Scott. We left a spot open for him."
As Gomez said, "Listen, this wasn't a case where I'm walking into the locker room, and there's another guy packing up his stuff and leaving. I wouldn't have done this, if that was how it would go."
Just a few weeks ago, Gomez had been renting ice time in New Jersey with some of his Devils teammates, holding out hope that the lockout would somehow be resolved before training camp. They were hanging out, talking about how much they missed those moments together. That has been the best part for the Aces and Gomez. Payne loves the way Gomez just asked to be treated like anyone else on the team, and Gomez loves the way they've done just that.
"Once you're in that locker room, it's doesn't matter where you are -- a men's league, here, or the NHL -- it's a locker room," Gomez said. "That's what's so great about this. They're just letting me be one of the guys. It's been a blast."
Gomez had talked to Devils goalie Martin Brodeur a few days ago, and his teammate sounded so jealous. Truth be told, a lot of his Devils teammates tell him how fortunate he's been to get this opportunity. "You're playing hockey, and you're getting to play at home," Brodeur wistfully told him. Gomez didn't dare placate his teammate with denials.
As a Mexican-American hockey star, it's expected Gomez's appearance will pack arenas in Bakersfield and Fresno this week. This threatens to turn into a rock-n-roll tour, a suggestion that Gomez laughed about on the phone. "All I know," he said, "is that I'm just having a lot of fun playing hockey right now."
As it now looks on the labor front, this brief stay in the bush leagues could extend the entire season for Gomez, so maybe they'll get to hold onto him a little longer back home. Perhaps he'll eventually grow weary of the bus rides and fast food and Quality Inn's, but that one weekend in Anchorage taught him that he'll never get tired of hearing his community cheer him.
Every Alaskan should get the chance to feel such warmth and light, when it gets so cold and dark there. With him home now, they all get the chance.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, The Miracle Of St. Anthony: A Season With Coach Bob Hurley And Basketball's Most Improbable Dynasty, can be pre-ordered before its February 2005 release. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.