Brandon Dubinsky knows all about Alaska’s “rowdy and passionate” hockey fans. That’s because he used to be one of them. Unfortunately, one of Alaska’s favorite hockey-playing sons never had a chance to experience the thrill from the other side of the glass.
That all changed on Sept. 15 when the clock struck midnight on the National Hockey League’s collective bargaining agreement, leaving players locked out this hockey season.
And to paraphrase Alexander Graham Bell, when one door closes another one opens. In that instance, the door that swung open for Dubinsky, along with fellow Anchorage natives Nate Thompson and Joey Crabb, was at Sullivan Arena, the home of their hometown Aces, a team in the East Coast Hockey League.
“To get the opportunity to play for the Alaska Aces, a team I grew up watching, and in an arena I grew up sitting in, was special,” Dubinsky said. “It was something that was always in the back of my mind and something I wanted to do.“
Dubinsky never thought he would get the chance after leaving Anchorage during his sophomore year at Service High School to pursue his NHL dream.
He could have joined the mass exodus of NHL players who chose to play in Europe, but knew that home was where his heart was, and the Aces were a perfect fit.
“You always hope something would get done,” Dubinsky said of the stalled CBA negotiations that have thus far led to the cancellation of NHL games through November.
“When it didn’t get done you sort of step back and look for alternatives. There were some offers in Europe, but in the end to me it was a once in a lifetime opportunity to play at the Sullivan Arena.”
The Aces have been a cornerstone of Alaskan sports since making its professional debut in 1995. The team’s roots date even further back to 1989 as a semi-professional squad. As the only professional sports team in Alaska, youth players grow up idolizing the Aces.
These days there is a new class of Alaskan players who are making their mark in the NHL, including Thompson, a center with the Tampa Bay Lightning, who can still recall his first Aces game.
“My very first hockey game when I was a little guy was at the Sullivan Arena, so it kind of holds a special place to me,” he said. “Dean Larson, Keith Street, Brian Kraft and guys like that I grew up watching were kind of like the NHL to me.”
Now in his ninth year in pro hockey, Thompson recently served as an alternate captain for Team USA at last year’s IIHF World Championship, where he roomed with Crabb.
Like his new teammates, Crabb hasn’t been home for an Alaskan fall/winter since he was 15 years old, first playing with the National Team Development Program and then spending four years at Colorado College.
After spending parts of the past two seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Crabb signed a contract with the Washington Capitals before the lockout. Even with his NHL experience, Crabb admitted he had butterflies during his Aces debut.
“It’s kind of funny that you get a little bit nervous. You wouldn’t think so, but anytime you play in front of friends and family there is a little bit of nerves,” Crabb said. “It's fun playing in front of them and giving them the chance to see me night in and night out.”
It’s also been a chance to reconnect with family and friends that each player only sees for a short time during the summer.
“You’re so far away that you lose track of your friends and your family a little bit. You obviously don’t get to see them as much as you like,” said Dubinsky, who began his career with the N.Y. Rangers before being traded to Columbus during the offseason.
This reunion also allowed Dubinsky to reconnect with childhood friends, including Dustin Molle, one of seven Aces on the roster this year from Anchorage. The two were best friends growing up on the ice together, but their careers sent them down separate paths, until now.
“We sort of lost track of each other and literally didn’t speak for two years,” Dubinsky said. “Now he is my roommate [on the road]. What an opportunity for us to reminisce about old times in high school and growing up in minor and high school hockey.”
“It was a lot of fun growing up and playing hockey with him,” Molle added. “I never really guessed I would get to play hockey with him again, but obviously it’s a blast.”
When the opportunity presented itself to add three NHL-caliber players to his roster, Alaska coach Rob Murray welcomed the move, but he made it clear that he wanted a commitment from his new Aces.
“You have to be invested in the team, I don’t care what level you are playing at,” said Murray, who coached Thompson with the AHL’s Providence Bruins.
“What these guys have shown through training camp … is they are invested. They want to be here.”
Dubinsky understood the importance of buying into the team mentality.
“You don’t want to come into a locker room and be overbearing, especially in our case come in and think you’re better than everyone in the locker room,” he said. “We came here tip-toeing a little bit, but at the same time we’re doing our best to help out these guys.”
These are not the first NHL players to suit up for the Aces during an NHL work stoppage. In 2004-05, Scott Gomez returned home to lead the Aces to the third round of the playoffs, and was named the league’s MVP.
All three called Gomez, the godfather of Alaska hockey, seeking his advice before making their final decision.
(Only recently, Gomez also signed on to play with the Aces.)
While it is important to stay in shape, Gomez said, playing for the Aces was also a way to give back to the community that helped launch their respective careers.
“That community is sort of the reason I got to where I am,” Dubinsky said. “It’s an opportunity to give them something back too.”
For how long remains the multi-million dollar question.
“Right now you never know,” Dubinsky said. “We don’t know when this thing is going to end. These guys are our teammates right now, and we’re excited to have them.”