Philadelphia is where he heard it. Philly, after all, is where they booed Santa Claus on a sleigh and cheered Michael Irvin on a stretcher. Philadelphia is where a couple gets married at halftime of an Eagles game-and fans razz the bride. It is where the best and worst sick jokes originate whenever there's a natural disaster or a particularly heinous crime. So it was in Philadelphia's First Union Center that Scott Gomez, skating into the corner, heard a loudmouth loge fan yell, "Hey, Gomez, drop the chalupa!"
Scott Gomez. It may be one of the more incongruous names in professional hockey. The NHL is the league of Maurice Richard, Yvan Cournoyer and Mario Lemieux. Imagine Bjorn Floden on the Jamaican bobsled team and you have Scott Gomez in the NHL. For decades, the North American professional hockey league was a private fraternity of polite, Tim Horton's-fed Canadian farmboys named Henri and Gord. Then came the Americans, Scandanavians and Eastern Europeans. As the league globalized, American- and Canadian-born blacks joined the mix. And now there is Scott Gomez, whose Spanish-speaking parents raised money for hockey travel by operating a taco stand at the annual state fair in Palmer, Alaska.
His mother is Colombian. His father is Mexican. He was born and raised in Anchorage, Alaska. Try to imagine the stunned citizens of Montreal the first time they hear the French translation of " New Jersey goal scored by No. 23, Scott Gomez."
One day after Christmas '99, three days after Scott's 20th birthday, Gomez's parents-Dalia and Carlos-were in the stands at Madison Square Garden to see their son score his first NHL hat trick. Three goals in one game. In the grandest indoor sports palace in all the Lower 48. Too bad nobody wore a hat that night.
If it had happened in Philly, no doubt someone would have tossed a sombrero onto the ice.
"It was fantastic," Carlos said the next day. "Our daughter, Natalie, was at the game with us and so was one of our cousins. I've been a sports fan all my life. Madison Square Garden is as big as it gets. It was like something that would happen in the movies. We'd been visiting with Scott for the holidays, and we didn't talk about hockey until the morning of that game. I told him that all the basics he learned as a kid applied here. Just do the things you've been doing all your life. That's the last thing I told him when I dropped him off at the rink. Then I hit the horn and drove off."
Gomez, who ranks among the league scoring leaders (nine goals, 27 assists in his first 40 games), is the frontrunner for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie. He is certainly the only rookie leading his team in scoring and smiles. The hat trick in the Garden alerted casual fans to the truth that Devil worshipers already knew. In two months of NHL action, Gomez has made himself the target not only of the wise guys in the stands, but of opposing teams as well. Watch him from the opening faceoff: Gomez's linemate Sergei Nemchinov wins the draw and slides the puck back to Ken Daneyko. The rest of the Devils skate into position, but Gomez gets stuck in slush because one goon grabs his stick while another mucker pokes him from behind.
Gomez is the first Latino player in the NHL, but that is only part of his story. Head always up, he has great vision on the ice. A natural-born center who has been playing a lot of wing, Gomez runs the give-and-go like John Stockton on skates, and invariably finds the open man. He wasn't supposed to be ready for the league this season, but already he is the player you have to stop when you play New Jersey. The grizzled vets have noticed.
"As an older player, you want to make sure he's aware of your presence," says Bruins icon Ray Bourque-a man who was already playing in the NHL when Gomez was born on Dec. 23, 1979. "This kid does a lot of good things. He's got good vision and he passes the puck well. He sees what's coming toward him. When a young guy like this comes along, you want to make an impression. If you can make him think about that, you can take advantage of it for a while. Of course, they get over it. But these young guys they keep coming."
They keep coming, but none ever followed a path like the one blazed by Gomez.
In most ways, Dalia and Carlos Gomez are typical NHL parents. They got up at 5 a.m. to take advantage of available ice time. They bought second- hand hockey stuff and made room in their car and kitchen for the giant, smelly equipment bag. They strapped on makeshift goalie pads and stood in the doorway when Scott needed target practice. They said goodbye to their son when he was 16. And when he signed his first professional contract, a three-year deal worth more than $2 million in salary and incentives, they used some of the money to remodel their tiny, puck-marked house. (The Bruins inked Bobby Orr when they agreed to put aluminum siding on his folks' home in Parry Sound, Ontario.) Just last year, Dalia broke open her massive jar of quarters when Scott came home from junior hockey in need of stick blades on a day the local banks were closed.
Dalia was born in Colombia, taken away from her mother at a young age and sent to live with an aunt in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her aunt's brother moved to Alaska and got a job painting at the local army base. Seven-year-old Dalia and her aunt soon followed. Carlos was the son of an illegal migrant farm worker, one of Salvador Gomez's 10 children. Shortly after Carlos was born in Modesto, Calif., the family was sent back to Mexico, where they lived in poverty. Brother Joe had an arm amputated because he received no medical attention for a long time after breaking a bone. Carlos' mom moved the family to Tijuana when Carlos was 5, and he never saw his dad again. He eventually moved to San Diego, where he completed high school, and then to Anchorage, where he worked on the Alaska Pipeline project.
Dalia was still in high school when she met 23-year-old Carlos. They eloped in 1976 and started a family. First they had Monica, who is now 21 and has two children. Then Scott. Finally, they had Natalie, now an 11-year-old sixth-grader.
Carlos Gomez had grown up in a culture of baseball. "But if you're gonna live in Alaska," he says, "you gotta skate." Scottie didn't take to the blades right away and wanted to quit. Dalia said okay, but Carlos had invested in a new pair of little skates, and Scottie was pushed back onto the ice.
Raised by parents who never really had parents, Scottie was something of a Colombian-Mexican- Alaskan golden child. He would never go without love, support and hockey equipment that fit. He didn't have to work (his parents fired him from his only job when he kept giving away tacos at the state fair), and he never heard the word "no" when another expensive hockey junket was proposed. Carlos and Dalia made sure Scottie had the opportunities they never had. It was no sacrifice. It's what made them happy.
Dalia remembers: "Scott liked hockey so much and was so good at it. He always wanted more from it. Carlos said, 'Son, if you want to do it, we'll take care of whatever you need.' We were always there for him and still are. We didn't care. We knew that Scott loved hockey. It was hard, but we always managed. My husband was into fundraising. Carlos would sell pizzas, raffle tickets, anything. He worked hard. He made sure Scott got whatever he needed when it came to hockey."
Gomez's Latino lineage gets most of the attention, but he's equally proud of his status as a native Alaskan in the NHL. He is the first Alaska-born player in the league, only the fourth Alaskan ever to make it to the big time of North American professional sports. (One of the others is Trajan Langdon, a fellow East High alum who played basketball at Duke and is now a Cleveland Cavaliers rookie.)
Gomez is prepared for Lower-48 ignorance of his homeland. He's heard all the questions about igloos, snowshoes, dogsleds, passports (you don't need one to fly from Anchorage to Newark) and car batteries that must be plugged in overnight. Green Bay aside, Alaska is the true frozen tundra of American sports. But Anchorage is a city of 250,000 people and six high schools, and Gomez grew up skating indoors probably more than most NHL players. Still, it's hard to claim you're a city kid when your town's local paper, the Anchorage Daily News, is wholly comfortable telling everyone that your home address is 1812 Toklat Street.
"Scottie has no idea what it's like back home now," says Carlos. "This town is just going nuts.
When he comes back, he's not gonna have one free minute of the day. People take pictures of me now, just because I'm Scott's dad. I don't have a name anymore. I'm just Scott's dad."
Carlos and Dalia let their boy leave home after his junior year of high school. They found him a billet family when he played for South Surrey of the British Columbia Junior League. Then it was on to the major-junior circuit at Tri-Cities (Washington), where he caught the eye of NHL scouts. The Devils selected him in the first round (27th overall) of the 1998 draft.
Some teams were troubled by Gomez's size (5'11", 190 pounds). "I didn't want to like him because he was just another little guy," says Bruins scout Gerry Cheevers. "I saw him play in a couple of rookie games and he was just another small guy, a pretty good skater. But the more I watched him, the more I liked him. I was sold. He's a great playmaker, and a top-notch player. He's got a little pizzazz too, a little spark."
The Devils brought Gomez to camp after the draft. "I remember he had a good camp," says former Devil Dave Andreychuk, now with the Bruins. "He's patient with the puck and sees the ice well. He's got a smile on his face 20 hours a day. He's got the right attitude."
Gomez returned to Tri-Cities for the 1998-99 season, but came back to camp this year and seized the day when Devil holdouts Brendan Morrison and Patrik Elias created some space. "I wanted to make them keep me," says Gomez. "Then when I finally made it, I didn't want to just be here. I wanted to contribute."
Still, Gomez is a little star-struck by his situation: "The guys I play with are unbelievable. You get on the ice and there's Lindros and Jagr. But you've got to let it go and play your game. They are the best players in the world, but that just makes it more fun and easier."
Because "Gomer," as his teammates call him, is at least three years younger than every other Devil, he's easy fodder for locker room humor. "I'm 13 years older than him," says veteran wing Randy McKay, who sits in the locker next to Gomez's. "There's a generation gap. I get on him all the time about his age. He wants to get a Devils jacket-one of those ones the kids wear with his name on the back. Kinda like a Devils letter jacket. I think he misses all that."
McKay and other veteran Devils gave the kid a thrill when they took him out to dinner with former teammate Doug Gilmour, now with the Blackhawks. Growing up, Gomez idolized Gilmour and could barely handle his utensils in the presence of his role model.
Gomez is living a fantasy, and he knows it. He lives in his own apartment in Clifton, N.J., makes almost $1 million a year, drives a black Ford F-150 truck, bought his mom a Dodge Durango, and says he's "still waiting for that one Alaskan girl."
"I go to the rink sometimes and start laughing," he admits. "I'm like 'Dude, this is my job, are you kidding me?' Think about a dream that you've had since you were a little kid-something that you just couldn't get out of your mind. When you're growing up, you go to camp, and they always tell you that there's a slim chance one of you guys will make it. Now I look back at all those times, and that's what makes it so special."
Gomez is just your "normal" 20-year-old NHL star. With one difference: Kids with Spanish surnames now have a reason to believe. "The Latino community is proud," he acknowledges. "It's something that I'm proud of too. I hope it inspires more young Latinos. They'll see me and say, 'If Gomez can play, maybe I can play.'"