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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - The National Hockey League's labor dispute has provided an unexpected windfall for Alaska's minor league.
Three NHL players, currently barred from their usual ice and locker rooms by the lockout imposed by league owners, were scheduled to skate for the Alaska Aces on Monday in the first of two exhibition games.
A fourth NHL player, Scott Gomez of the Montreal Canadiens, has also taken refuge from the lockout by joining the Aces roster, though he is not yet scheduled to play Aces games.
The two-time Stanley Cup winner has been taking part in practices, sporting a borrowed jersey with his name temporarily attached to the back.
All four NHL players who joined the Aces during the lockout are from Anchorage. The players - Brandon Dubinsky of the New York Rangers, Nate Thompson of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Joey Crabb of the Washington Capitals, along with Gomez - are products of local youth hockey programs and have loyal fans.
So returning to Anchorage to wait out the NHL dispute was a natural choice, said Dubinsky.
"It's an easy thing to come up here when you're from here," he said in a rink-side interview.
The first two weeks of the 2012-13 regular NHL season were canceled earlier this month due to a labor dispute, with owners and players at odds over how to divide a $3.3 billion revenue pie after a prior collective bargaining agreement expired.
The decision impacts 82 games scheduled from October 11-24 and marks the first time regular season action has been canceled since a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
If they remained in their NHL cities, the players would likely manage to stay in shape, but working out might be a lonely or disorganized proposition, Dubinsky said.
"Skating with a full team and a big organized program and a coach really helps," he said.
But the transition to ECHL, as the minor league the Aces play in is known, has its pitfalls.
Crabb, who is 29, admitted that he has not spent a full winter in Anchorage since he was 15.
He has a house in Anchorage that he uses for his summer sojourns north, but it is being remodeled - a project that was expected to take all winter. So he has been staying at his parents' house, he said.
He must send for his winter gear, which is not in Alaska, he said. "I have winter clothes, but I didn't plan on being here that long. They're all down in the (lower) states," he said.
For Gomez, this is a second stint on the Aces roster. He joined the Aces for the 2004-05 season, the year a separate lockout canceled the entire NHL schedule.
That year, he was named the ECHL's most valuable player. But the rough-and-tumble style of play in the league took a toll on Gomez: He broke his pelvis after suffering a hard check in overtime during an ECHL playoff game.
Editing by Cynthia Johnston