MIAMI - He flashes his smile with the enthusiasm of a 16-year-old showing off a driver's license. His boyish good looks make him stand out in a sport filled with scarred and toothless players. Most importantly, Scott Gomez is good, maybe the best of this season's rookie class.
The National Hockey League could not have handpicked a better trailblazer.
The circuit's first Hispanic and Alaskan-born player turned 20 last month. He's still young enough to nick himself shaving, evidenced by the blood trickling down his left cheek as he emerged from the visitors' locker room Tuesday at National Car Rental Center.
Neither his tender age nor brief NHL tenure reflect what Gomez means to the Devils and a community once without a hockey hero. Gomez is a big reason New Jersey is atop the Atlantic Division.
He is a pioneering Hispanic, but that is not the sole cause for the attention Gomez has generated in hockey towns and Hispanic neighborhoods across North America. Gomez is the lone rookie among the league's top 25 scorers. Through 48 games, he has 13 goals. Only five players had more assists than Gomez (31) entering Tuesday's games.
``He's an extremely smart player,'' linemate Brendan Morrison said. ``The way he sees the ice and his vision out there, the way he anticipates is one of his best assets. He creates a lot of things. He always has the ability to find the open man, and a lot of guys can't do that.''
Added Devils coach Robbie Ftorek: ``He's very confident when he has the puck. The guy who's chasing him, he's usually going to stay far enough away from him so he's not going to gain possession of the puck.''
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, Gomez recorded his first career hat trick Dec.26 against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. His parents were in the stands that night. Gomez's father, Carlos, was born in Mexico. His mother, Dalia, is Colombian.
Whereas many Hispanic kids use a bat and glove to forge better financial circumstances for themselves and their families, Gomez donned skates and pads. Despite being of modest means, Carlos and Dalia made sure their son never lacked equipment or a ride to even the farthest junior tournament.
Their dedication, coupled with Scott's talent, resulted in New Jersey making him its second choice (27th overall) in the 1998 Entry Draft. Gomez is so gifted, the Devils gave serious thought to keeping him with the big club in 1998-99.
``I just wanted to make the team,'' Gomez said of his expectations for this season. ``I knew I had a pretty good shot with holdouts and stuff like that. I got the opportunity, and when you're playing with guys at this level it makes everything easier. It's no secret, you give Claude Lemieux the puck, and most of the time it's going to go in.''
If it were that easy, chances are opponents would have found a way to stop Gomez by now. And if it hasn't happened already, it probably won't.
``When you look at all the games that he's played already and having the success that he is, I don't think you're going to be able to eliminate all the opportunities,'' Panthers coach Terry Murray said. ``He's got great speed, tremendous acceleration and scoring touch. Without a doubt, he's playing like a veteran and having a huge impact on New Jersey's performance.''
His impact reaches beyond the ice. The Mexican-American communities in San Jose, Anaheim and Phoenix welcomed Gomez wholeheartedly when New Jersey made a West Coast swing this season.
``Latino people are definitely proud of their own,'' Gomez said.
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