Scott Gomez. The name rings a different bell for almost every hockey fan who hears it. New Jersey Devils fans hear “traitor”. New York Rangers fans hear “ epic failure”. Montreal Canadiens fans are still trying to figure out what they hear.
Perhaps a look at his career passages might shed some light.
I was there, a Devils fan, when Young Gomez first came up to the team in September 1999. In the beginning, he played on the fourth line with Kristof Oliwa and other wingers. Oliwa who had been known more for beating opponents’ heads then beating their goalies suddenly became a big-time scorer. Several games in a row Gomez laid pass after pass on his stick and with great flair Oliwa would hit the back of the net. As a result Young Gomez found himself a protector and best new friend. Anyone who breathed too closely on the kid would be faced with an angry Oliwa.
In no time he was moved to a line with Claude Lemieux where his prowess as a passer and set-up man continued. He was so content with passing that Lemieux told the press he sat the rookie down and told him “Kid, sometimes you have to shoot”. In his triumphant first year Gomez made a significant contribution to the Devils second Stanley Cup win and was named the NHL’s rookie of the year, winner of the Calder Cup. More than that, he was universally loved – by the players, by the fans and by the press.
His best year with the Devils was 2005-2006 when he played with Brian Gionta on the right wing and Zach Parise / Patrik Elias on his left, scoring 84 points, 33 goals and 51 assists. That year, Gionta broke John MacLean’s single season goals record with 48. Gomez was flying high.
In the summer of 2006, in a bitter arbitration with Devils’ general manager Lou Lamoriello, he was awarded $5 million on a one-year contract. He immediately reverted to his normal season of sixty points – 13 goals and 47 assists, good enough for a second line center, but not at five mil a year. The fun was gone. That summer he did not receive an offer to return to the team.
Instead the Rangers’ G.M., Glen Sather, raising the bar even higher, invited Gomez to jump across the river, offering a seven-year, $51.5 million dollar deal with $10 million first year guarantee. Gomez graciously accepted. In interviews at that time, Gomez said he had always wanted to play at the Garden, implying that was the Big Time. The New Jersey faithful were enraged, seeing his move to the Rangers as an act of treason, punishable by pain and flagellation.
On the other hand, Ranger fans were delighted. Year after year, they had watched number 23 sweep down the ice,
dodge check after check, then feed off to one of his scorers for another Devils win. They could not wait to see him in Rangers Blue.
Unfortunately, those great days of glory never came. The Rangers’ second major acquisition that summer was Chris Drury, another playmaker, but a nose-to- the-grindstone type player, whose style, though perfect in Buffalo, was not a great fit in New York. The Rangers had too many passers, not enough snipers.
Gomez ended up like a gourmet chef with no one to feed. At first he was paired with Jaromir Jagr but no chemistry developed between them. Jagr preferred to make his own plays, mostly from the periphery, and Gomez needed someone to fight his way into the slot. Several other combinations were tried – Gomez/Drury, Gomez/Dubinsky, Gomez/anyone – but all failed. For a player who had been revered in New Jersey and before that in Alaska, the jeers and the taunting of the rabid New York fans was more than Gomez could handle. Gomez was a bust. A divorce from the team was inevitable. That summer he was traded to Montreal.
Surprisingly, Montreal fans seemed to have no idea of who Scott Gomez was or what he would bring to the team. With his super-sized salary they rightfully expected a full-blown superstar. Knowing that he would be reunited in Montreal with Brian Gionta, Gomez followers insisted that his game would come back big time, those horrible years in New York would be erased and Scotty would emerge all that he had been expected to be. Gomez and Gionta started out the season with some spectacular passing and scoring. They were looking ahead to a renaissance of both their careers. Six weeks into the season Gionta broke his foot, once again leaving Gomez without that sniper he so badly needs. Now Brian is back. Benoit Pouliot is healthy and this newly formed line seems to have found the missing key to putting the puck in the back of the net.
There are haunting questions about Gomez’ game. Sather openly criticized his commitment and conditioning and traded him. The U.S. Olympic Team left him off their roster. The Devils let him leave without making a serious offer. If ever there was a time to respond to all the dark clouds hovering over him, this is it.
In 2005-2006 Gomez, Elias and Gionta led the Devils to an eleven-game winning streak to finish the season, winning the division title and killing the Rangers in an opening round of the playoffs. There can be no promises made when it comes to NHL hockey but Canadiens fans can be assured that these boys have done it before and with strong support from their following can do it again.
Let’s hope history will repeat itself and that his “A” game will return. At the top of his game he is great fun to watch. Let’s hope he finds it.