Daniel Perez didn't just dream about becoming a pro hockey player as a kid growing up in New Jersey.
He dreamed of being Scott Gomez.
"Seeing Scott Gomez was just, like, the coolest thing, I wanted to be him when I got older," Perez said. "I loved the way he played. He was definitely a big-time role model for me growing up."
Perez, a forward, made it to the pros, playing for Greenville of the ECHL last season after playing Division I hockey at the University of Maine from 2015-19. But his admiration and appreciation of Gomez, a center who played his first seven NHL seasons with the New Jersey Devils, remains so strong that he hasn't changed the décor of the bedroom of his boyhood home.
"I'm actually in my room right now, I can look around and I see three or four pictures of Scott Gomez," the 25-year-old said before he left New Jersey in late September for Greenville's training camp.
Gomez wasn't the first NHL's player of Hispanic heritage -- Minnesota Wild general manager Bill Guerin, who's part Nicaraguan, debuted with the Devils in 1991-92 -- but he is perhaps the most important in terms of fostering a generation of Hispanic hockey players and fans in North America and beyond.
"We had a chance to meet him when I was playing goal for a pee wee team from Mexico; we were playing a tournament in Anaheim and the Devils were playing the Ducks," said Andres de la Garma, now a coach in Mexico's national hockey program. "Everybody knew who Scott Gomez was in the Mexican hockey environment, and everybody knew he had Mexican roots. He's like an inspiration in all Mexican hockey, for sure."
How does all the adulation make Gomez feel?
"It just shows how old you're getting," Gomez, who'll turn 40 on Dec. 23, said with a laugh. "You hear stories like, 'I used to like watching you rush the puck up and the next day in practice I would do that.' That's always cool to hear because it brings you back to when you were a kid and got to meet guys that you idolized, guys that paved the way."
Ironically, Gomez, an Anchorage, Alaska, native of Mexican-Colombian descent, said he wasn't fully aware of his impact during his 16-season NHL career.
"At the time, I didn't realize the big picture. I wish I could have done more," he said. "In saying that, you bet there was no one more proud that my last name was Gomez and I was in the NHL. I'll always take pride in that."
Gomez was voted winner of the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie in 1999-2000; he was the first Hispanic player to receive that honor. He helped the Devils to Stanley Cup championships in 2000 and 2003 and had 101 points (29 goals, 72 assists) in 149 Stanley Cup Playoff games. Gomez finished his career with 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 retired in 2016 and joined the New York Islanders coaching staff in 2017 as an assistant, a job he held until the end of last season.
Gomez's presence on and off the ice resonated with Perez, whose family has Cuban and Portuguese roots. Perez saw his first NHL game at age 3, when his father took him to a Rangers game with tickets his mother received from work.
"I was just in awe from that point on, fell in love with it," he said. "I told him at the game, 'I want to play that.'"
Perez's allegiance to the Rangers was brief once he saw Gomez play for the Devils at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey, about five minutes from his family's home.
"I met him quite a few times," Perez said. "We would go down to where the players would leave their locker room to a place where they would eat dinner after the game in the bottom of the arena. My father, he's a pretty outgoing guy, he would say 'Hey, Scott, my son's a big fan of yours, a Hispanic kid.' Scott was super, super nice to us, would always recognize us, take time to speak to me here and there, always took pictures with us."
Now Perez is paying it forward. In the offseason, he's a volunteer for Hockey in New Jersey, an affiliate of the NHL's Hockey Is For Everyone initiative.
During his college hockey days, he took time to sign autographs and chat with Hispanic fans whenever they approached him after games or practices.
"Hockey in New Jersey, that's where I noticed a lot of Hispanic kids, Latino kids, coming up to me, asking me a lot of questions and said they were following me," Perez said. "It was definitely eye-opening to see that I was kind of making a slight impact on people the same way Scott Gomez made an impact on me.
"I looked up to him so much in ways I don't know he'll ever realize, and he's a big reason why I pursued and pushed hockey, why I love it and believe in myself," Perez added. "For me to, hopefully, have that impact, I see I have a great responsibility and opportunity to make a difference in ways that I might not realize."
Just like Scott Gomez.
Photos Courtesy: Daniel Perez