Scott Gomez has heard all sorts of tales about how he reached the NHL.
"The stories were just incredible, how I grew up in poverty and I went to major juniors to feed my family," Gomez said. "The main thing that I kind of understood was that I didn't care, if it's going to make an impact on a kid, that's what was the main thing. If they saw that a Mexican-Colombian from Alaska can play, and if it gave them a little jump, that's what I was shooting for."
The 39-year-old, who broke in with the New Jersey Devils in 1999-00, is regarded by many as the first Hispanic star in the NHL, though he wasn't the League's first player of Hispanic descent. Bill Guerin, the Minnesota Wild general manager and former forward with eight NHL teams, is part Nicaraguan and began his career with the Devils in 1991-92.
Gomez had 756 points (181 goals, 575 assists) in 1,079 games for the Devils, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, San Jose Sharks, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues and Ottawa Senators.
He won the Calder Trophy voted as the NHL rookie of the year in 1999-2000. He helped the Devils win the Stanley Cup in 2000 and 2003, and had 101 points (29 goals, 72 assists) in 149 Stanley Cup Playoffs games. He retired in 2016 after 16 NHL seasons.
Gomez spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the New York Islanders and is now between jobs, considering options for his future.
"I've been doing hockey 36 years straight," Gomez said. "I got a couple things maybe lined up in New Jersey. I still talk to a lot of the older players, the younger guys. I'm sure as the season goes on, they'll be asking stuff. You're there to help out."
Following the advice of his father, Carlos, Gomez has embraced questions throughout his career about his heritage, though sometimes replied with tongue in cheek. For instance, when he was playing for the Sharks and had an assist on a goal by Raffi Torres, who is a Canadian of Mexican and Peruvian heritage, on April 23, 2013, against the Dallas Stars.
"Raffi and I are on a line together, we have a 2-on-1, I throw it across to him, he scores," Gomez said. "They're interviewing me, and I was like, 'This is NHL history, this is probably the greatest assist I've ever had.' The reporter had no clue, 'What do you mean NHL history?' I'm, like, 'You tell me another time a Mexican passes across on a 2-on-1 to another Mexican and he top-shelfs it?'"
With Hispanic Heritage Month concluding on Tuesday, Gomez discussed his heritage, hockey reaching out to the Hispanic community and other communities of color, and more in an interview with NHL.com.
Here are Five Questions with... Scott Gomez:
Did you feel that it was a responsibility or a burden to be considered a role model when you first entered the NHL?
"Anchorage, Alaska, is one of the most diverse places in the United States of America. Growing up, I was never the Mexican, Latin hockey player. It was never a big deal. Then when I got out, went to juniors, people kind of made a story about it was some mystical thing, it didn't make sense how a Mexican-Colombian played hockey. When I got to Jersey, my heritage … I didn't want to be compared to Jackie Robinson and what he had to go through. Talking to my parents, I told them, 'Man, they're really making this a story.' We're kind of jokesters in my family and my old man said, 'Go with it, be yourself.' I used a quote that 'It's not like I crossed the border with five bottles of tequila and a pair of skates and magic happened.' As I got older, I realized people thought it (his heritage) was neat. If it was going to help another Latin kid play hockey … if they saw a kid with my background and stuff and they wanted to play hockey and got inspired, that's when I really understood it."
Do you, did you, consider yourself a trailblazer?
"Not once did I think I'm paving the way. Your rookie year, it's a fantasyland, you can't believe what's going on. I was on a great hockey club. It was straight business. I was more focused on the hockey. But it's kind of tough talking about yourself, it's always nice to hear that a guy was inspired to play by you. I think that's how we all started: We gravitated to someone. Maybe if it's a Hispanic kid and he or she has the same last name or whatever, yeah, you bet you like hearing that.
Did you encounter any problems, discrimination, in juniors or the NHL?
"Juniors, yeah, kids can be cruel. I remember the first time I heard [a racial slur], I didn't know what that was. I remember saying, 'Hey, this kid is calling me this.' My dad let it be known that 'no one is going to call you that,' but at the same time, there's a way to get back at guys that try to go that route. That was just more motivation to put the puck in the net. Usually the guys that are saying it were usually the guys that weren't playing much. In the pros, you heard it a couple of times, the odd times here and there, but it wasn't going to stop me, bug me."
How important is it for hockey to reach out to the Hispanic community and other communities of color?
"I think it's really important, for any race, for anybody, it's evolving the game. Now that I am turning 40 here, you look back at Auston Matthews and guys from areas like Arizona, it just shows you. The guy that gets the main credit, still gets credit, is Wayne Gretzky. If you look back now, just him going to [the Los Angeles Kings], that changed our whole game, that changed our whole culture. It keeps building the game."
Have you visited Mexico or Colombia, your mother's homeland?
"Yeah, I've been to Mexico, my dad's sister is in the Tijuana area. I went to Colombia two summers ago with my uncle and one of my best friends and saw cousins and a couple of aunts and uncles. I loved to know how much money I spent every time I'd come [to California] and we'd play the Kings or Anaheim [Ducks] because there would be 50 Mexicans in the crowd. It was fun, everyone was proud, I'm proud of my culture, proud of my family, proud of my heritage. I'm Alaskan as far as my roots and stuff, but I'm as Latin as they come."