ANCHORAGE - New Jersey Devils center Scott Gomez signed a contract Monday with the minor league Alaska Aces to play for $500 a week until the NHL lockout ends, a spokesman for the Anchorage team said.
"It was a no-brainer," Gomez told KTUU-TV. "Money's not everything."
Gomez, 24, who won the 2000 Calder Award as the NHL's rookie of the year, will make his debut with the AA-level ECHL team on Friday. Gomez has played all five of his seasons in the NHL with the Devils, helping them win Stanley Cups in 2000 and 2003.
"It's a shot in the arm," said team spokesman Jack Michaels. "In the last couple of hours, we've sold 250 tickets for Friday night and 25 season tickets."
The NHL lockout began 40 days ago. No negotiations between the league and the players association are scheduled.
Gomez was awarded a one-year, $2.9 million contract in an arbitration settlement in August for this season, but players are not paid during the lockout. ECHL teams are limited to having their combined salaries be $10,000 per week for their 20 active players during the season.
Gomez earned $1 million last season, when he had 14 goals and tied for the NHL lead with 56 assists in 80 games. His 70 points tied for the 20th overall among the NHL's scoring leaders, but he was the league's top scorer after the all-star break.
"Obviously, we're thrilled to have Scott join our club from a talent standpoint, his abilities and accomplishments speak for themselves," Aces head coach Dennis Payne said in a press release posted on the team's Web site. "But I'm also excited to bring his team-first attitude into our dressing room. He's made it clear to me that he expects to be treated as one of the guys and that his first priority is bringing his hometown a championship as long as the NHL lock-out remains an issue."
Since the NHL locked out its players, many of them have chosen to go overseas to play in leagues in Sweden, Russia, Italy and other countries until the labor issues are resolved. Many NHL teams assigned their younger players to teams in the American Hockey League and International Hockey League, the two top minor leagues in the country.
Gomez is the first NHL star to sign with a lower-level minor league team to wait out the NHL lockout.
The leagues provide some insurance in case of an injury, and many of the top NHL players have bought supplemental insurance policies while they play overseas or in the minors.
"Scott, as you can imagine, had far more lucrative offers to play overseas, including Russia, but he opted to play for his hometown team," Michaels said.
Gomez attended East Anchorage High School and was a two-time Alaska Player of the Year before he left the state to play junior hockey in what would have been his senior year. He was the 27th overall pick of the 1998 draft and played two years of minor league hockey before making the Devils' roster.
Michaels said Gomez will live in the Aces' team apartments and travel with the rest of the team.
Gomez will join four other Aces who grew up in Anchorage, including former East teammate Mike Lee. The other Anchorage players on the team are Louis Mass and Chris Heisten, who both went to Dimond High, and former University of Alaska Anchorage players Mike Scott and Vladimir Novak.
The Alaska Aces are the only professional sports franchise in the state.
Gomez participated in his first practice Monday. The Aces play the San Diego Gulls on Friday at Sullivan Arena.
The ECHL season runs from October through April, with 72 scheduled games.
The Aces opened their ECHL season last weekend when they lost two games to the league-champion Idaho Steelheads.