Who says you can’t go home again? That’s precisely what some Alaskan-born NHLers are doing for the duration of this lockout by joining the ECHL’s Alaska Aces.
From the get-go, Washington’s Joey Crabb, Tampa Bay’s Nate Thompson and new Columbus Blue Jacket Brandon Dubinsky signed up with the squad. It’s a chance for the guys to give their remote hometown hockey community something to get excited about and for their first fans to watch them for the first time since they left for, literally, greener pastures.
“Once these guys finished their minor hockey they moved on and they never came back to play here again,” said Aces coach Rob Murray. “Now their fans can come and see them up close and it’s been a great atmosphere.”
Veteran Scott Gomez, who played for the club during the last lockout, also recently joined up.
The biggest catch for the Aces was certainly Dubinsky, a two-time 20-goal scorer at the NHL level who struggled through a bit of a down season in 2011-12. Dubinsky has been great for them and is on a point per game pace with eight goals in 12 games. But the Aces’ leading scorer isn’t who you think it would be. Joey Crabb’s eight goals and 19 points in 17 games get that honor.
“It’s neat some of the stories,” said Murray. “We were at a game and a lady said that she taught Joey in Grade 4.”
The Aces play out of Sullivan Arena in Anchorage, the city’s main hockey arena since 1983 and current home of the Aces and WCHA’s University of Alaska, Anchorage Seawolves. But right next door is Ben Boeke Arena, a twin-pad facility standing since 1974 that has been the spawn point of a few NHL careers.
“You’d play your minor hockey game and rush over to watch the Aces,” Thompson said. “You’d wear your team jacket around and felt like you owned the place.”
That’s a feeling many current and former minor hockey players can relate to.
The independent Aces franchise has a rich recent history, with Kelly Cup championships in 2006 under coach Davis Payne and 2011 under coach Brent Thompson. But last season, after finishing with the most points in the league, Alaska was bumped by the Las Vegas Wranglers in five games of the West final.
After losing leading scorer Dan Kissel to the Stavanger Oilers of the Norwegian League and first-line forwards Wes Goldie and Brian Swanson to retirement, the infusion of NHL talent into Alaska’s lineup was a much-needed boost. It’s helped keep the team on top of its division and, with a 13-5 record, they have the second-most points league-wide.
“These guys are invested in the team,” Murray said. “They’re not here just waiting for the lockout to end. They’re very helpful with the younger players. They’re not just going out there and dogging it.”
Added Thompson: “The hockey community is so tight up here. It was great to get a warm welcome from the fans. They really appreciate that we’re coming home to play.”
“Where are you?” is a new feature on THN.com that will run every Monday through the duration of the NHL lockout. We’ll pick out an NHLer who is in action and update you on his individual performance, as well as his team’s success. If you have a player you’d like to see covered here, email firstname.lastname@example.org or drop us a line on Twitter @TheHockeyNews or to the author @THNRoryBoylen.