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Devils' Scott Gomez Had a Breakthrough Season in More Ways Than One

November 22, 2000|PAUL GUTIERREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don't get him wrong. Scott Gomez appreciates the attention he gets from being the first Latino to play in the 83-year-old National Hockey League, he truly does.

It's just that when his name is tossed around with the likes of Jackie Robinson and Willie O'Ree, the New Jersey Devil center gets a tad uncomfortable.

"It was a pretty big deal," Gomez said of last year's media frenzy surrounding his ethnicity. "It was bigger than it should have been, maybe."

These things happen when the grandson of Mexican immigrants and the son of a Colombian-born mother does more than simply appear in the NHL, whose vast rosters are dotted by 27 minorities this year. They happen when he firmly establishes himself in his first year in the league.

But there is a fine line between being a novelty and being a pioneer. With the success he enjoyed last season, Gomez proved he was no token.

Gomez has already been an all-star, a member of a Stanley Cup championship team and was awarded the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year. And he doesn't turn 21 until Dec. 23.

"It's been amazing, an unbelievable feeling," said Gomez, in the Southland with the champion Devils for games against the Mighty Ducks today and the Kings Thursday. "Everything that happened last year was just unbelievable. Especially since it's just from playing hockey."

New Jersey General Manager Lou Lamoriello said Gomez brings a wealth of attributes, both tangible and intangible, to the Devils.

"As a person, he's just a tremendous individual," Lamoriello said. "He's energetic, he's a pleasure to be around, he's a family-type of person.

"As a player, there's no questioning his talents. He's skilled and talented and has a God-given talent with a natural hockey sense, knowing when to give up the puck. He's so mature for a second-year player. There's no height to the success he can have. He just has to be patient and we have to be patient with him."

Patience has seemingly paid off already, what with his crossover appeal and growing marketability.

Gomez has celebrated the Stanley Cup win with pro wrestling star Bill Goldberg, pouring champagne on the wrestler's head in the postgame celebration, made a brief appearance on the soap opera "One Life to Live," and was one of six Devils to pose for a fashion layout in a recent issue of "Gear" magazine. He was also part of a statewide voter registration drive aimed at young Alaskans.

A family-run Web site, http://www.ScottyGomez.com, and a burgeoning fan-club store in his hometown of Anchorage have sprung up as well.

None of it would have happened, though, had Gomez not excelled with New Jersey last season.

He finished his rookie season with 70 points, 19 goals and 51 assists in 82 games. In the playoffs he had 10 points, four goals and six assists, including the game-winning goal in Game 1 of the Devils' Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Florida Panthers.

The undersized Gomez, at 5 feet 11 and 200 pounds, has accomplished it all without a day in the minor leagues, having made the jump from Tri-City of the junior Western Hockey League to the Devils as their second pick, 27th overall, in the 1998 entry draft.

Gomez got off to a slow start this season, however, and didn't score his first goal until New Jersey's 10th game, even though he led the team in shots at the time.

He has gotten back on track, though, and has 10 points (three goals and seven assists) in 19 games.

Last Thursday, the left-handed Gomez scored with two seconds left in overtime to lift the Devils to a 3-2 victory over the Boston Bruins.

"It was just a case of not getting bounces here and there," Gomez said, dismissing any notion of a sophomore jinx and pressure getting to him. "Pressure? I don't think this is pressure. I mean, we're playing hockey. I'd rather be playing hockey than doing any other kind of job."

It was a job that took his father Carlos, one of 10 children, to Alaska. Carlos found work on the pipeline project and married Dalia before they began raising daughters Monica, who is now 23 and has two daughters, and Natalie, 12, and Scott.

The Gomez family began operating a profitable carne asada taco stand at the annual Alaska state fair 12 years ago as a way to raise extra money to support Scott's growing obsession with hockey. The business took off, despite Carlos having to "fire" his son every summer for giving away too many of the mom-and-pop operation's tacos.

"He came back this past August to surprise me," said Dalia, who was born in Colombia but grew up in Brooklyn and Anchorage. "He's this big-shot guy now and he comes to my [taco] booth, puts on an apron and starts working, just like he did when he was little."

Scott's visits to Alaska are akin to the prodigal son returning.

When he went home in late June, just after the Devils had beaten the Dallas Stars for the championship, Gomez helped carve a Stanley Cup replica out of a 150-pound block of ice with a chain saw.

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