In early January 2013, it was hardly surprising the Alaska Aces owned the best record in the ECHL, a 23-team, minor-league circuit two rungs below the NHL on North America’s hockey ladder.
That’s in part because the Aces savored the services of four NHL forwards from Anchorage – Scotty Gomez, Brandon Dubinsky, Nate Thompson and Joey Crabb – who were all psyched to suit up for their hometown team during the NHL lockout.
Injuries limited the number of games Gomez, Dubinsky and Thompson played, but the Aces nonetheless went 27-8-1 in exactly half a season before the lockout ended Jan. 6, 2013, with a tentative deal on a new collective bargaining agreement.
The Aces in those 36 games with world-class talent in the fold generated a nine-game winning streak, two six-game winning streaks and a four-game winning streak. And Aces fans got to see their hometown heroes up close. Alaska went 15-3-0 in 18 home games at Sullivan Arena with the NHLers on coach Rob Murray’s roster.
Crabb, a winger, led the Aces in scoring when the lockout ended – he delivered 17-21—38 totals in 35 games. Thompson, a center, went 7-14—21 in 24 games. Dubinsky, a center, checked in with 9-7—16 totals in 17 games and Gomez, a center and two-time Stanley Cup winner, checked in at 6-7—13 in 11 games.
Gomez figured the lockout was over the moment he woke up in his hotel room in Ontario, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 6.
“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,’’ he said at the time.
This was Gomez’s second go-round for the Aces. He also played for them in 2004-05, when another NHL lockout wiped out an entire season in the world’s best league. He led the ECHL in scoring and was voted the league’s Most Valuable Player, but Alaska’s playoff run was derailed in part because of a postseason injury Gomez suffered. (The Aces the following season won the first of the franchise’s three Kelly Cups as ECHL champs).
Gomez, Dubinsky and Crabb were on the road with the Aces – Thompson was home taking care of an injury – when they found out they were headed back to the NHL. They did not play that day in a 2-1 road win over Ontario. Crabb said the prospect of moving from his hometown team to NHL Washington in mid-season seemed odd.
“It’s almost like switching schools in the middle of the year,’’ Crabb said.
Dubinsky said he was psyched to get back to the NHL, but he felt invested in the Aces. Leaving that club and heading back to the Columbus Blue Jackets seemed surreal, he said.
“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.’’
Gomez played that NHL season for the San Jose Sharks and Crabb mostly played for the Washington Capitals, with some time at Hershey of the American Hockey League. Thompson returned to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Aces, who featured a strong roster even without the NHLers, continued to excel after the lockout, going 22-7-7 the rest of the way to finish 49-15-8, worth a league-leading 106 points. Alaska beat the San Francisco Bulls in five games of a best-of-7 Western Conference first-round series before falling to the Stockton Thunder – Stockton was coached by Matt Thomas, who went on to be head coach at UAA — in six games in the conference semifinals.