RALEIGH — Nathan Gerbe put in his first preseason practice Monday with the Carolina Hurricanes, and it proved to be a long, grinding session.
And Gerbe didnt mind a bit.
Its nice to be able to clear your head for a good hour and a half, the forward said.
Last week, a day before the Canes training camp was to begin, Gerbe said he received the worst phone call to get. His brother-in-law, Billy Kochis, had been killed in a multi-vehicle accident near Grand Rapids, Mich.
According to Michigan police, Kochis and John Pomeroy were backed up in traffic when their car was rear-ended by a pickup truck. Both were killed.
Kochis, 29, is survived by his wife, Shannon, and four children, all younger than 5 years old.
Its tough, Gerbe said. This what we do for fun play hockey. After that its real life.
Its a tragedy. Its something thats going to hurt forever. Its never going to go away.
Gerbe said he was grateful the Hurricanes organization allowed him as much time as needed to return to Michigan and be with his sister and family. Canes president and general manager Jim Rutherford spoke with him, as did Ron Francis, the teams vice president of hockey operations, and Canes coach Kirk Muller.
At the end of the day were all just humans and go through different things, said Muller, who lost a sister to cancer last October. He said today the best thing was to get back on the ice and get to playing again, and he seemed like he was ready to go and excited.
During practice, Gerbe was used on the wing on a line with center Elias Lindholm and Jeff Skinner. At 26, he easily was the old man on the line eight years older than Lindholm, the Canes first-round draft pick this year, and five years older than Skinner.
At 5-foot-5, Gerbe also was shortest. Then again, the former Boston College star usually is, regardless of his linemates.
Its nice to get out there and get your legs going, Gerbe said. Ive got to get back and jump right into the hard stuff.
Gerbe did have a chance to skate a few times with some of his new teammates in informal workouts at Raleigh Center Ice. He missed the first four days of on-ice work in training camp, including Sundays Red-White game and scrimmages Friday and Saturday.
Gerbe, a native of Oxford, Mich., was drafted by Buffalo in 2005 and played 197 regular-season and playoff games for the Sabres, only to have his contract bought out after last season. He signed a one-year, two-way contract in July with the Hurricanes.
Gerbe will have to fight for a roster spot. But he has gotten this far in his career by being scrappy, calling himself an agitator on the ice.
I can be a little pest, he said. I think thats part of my game. I get under peoples skins with how hard I work and I try to be physical any chance I can.
Gerbe has had back issues the past few years that have kept him out of games. But he said physically he feels fit.
Hes a real competitor, works hard, Muller said. He has great skill. Were exciting to have him here and see what he can show.
Gerbe said he will play this season with his brother-in-law in his thoughts. The two were close, Gerbe calling Kochis one of my biggest fans.
Obviously I want to go out there and play hard for him, too, Gerbe said.
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