Radek Dvorak had played more than 1,200 games in the NHL, but wanted more.
Nathan Gerbe, feeling abandoned by his old team, was looking to start over with a new one.
Both forwards came to the Carolina Hurricanes’ training camp hoping to secure a roster spot. Both were more or less long shots, knowing some things probably needed to fall right for it to happen.
All Dvorak and Gerbe could do was play their best, make themselves valuable and see if it was enough. In the end, it was.
Dvorak attended training camp on a professional tryout but earned a one-year contract. It would have been easy to call it a career and retire to his home in Florida, but he never considered it.
“No, no, no. I only look forward,” he said, smiling. “I think I can still play good hockey. I feel great, physically and mentally, and full of energy.”
Dvorak’s career began in the fall of 1995, when he was 18 and playing for the Florida Panthers. Eighteen years later, he still has the good hands and fluid moves on the ice, joking that he “feels 25 again” playing on a team with such young forwards as Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm.
“I still love the game and have passion for the game,” he said. “And I still haven’t won the Cup.”
Dvorak has twice played in the Stanley Cup Finals. The first came his rookie year, when the Panthers lost to the Colorado Avalanche. His second would come with the Edmonton Oilers, 10 years later.
Dvorak was on the Oilers team that took the Hurricanes to a seventh game in the 2006 Finals, with the Cup on the line. After the Oilers won the fifth and sixth games to tie the series, Dvorak said, “I thought we would win for sure.”
But the Canes, with rookie Cam Ward in net, won the decisive game 3-1. The Cup belonged to Carolina.
“It was a heartbreaking loss but that’s the way hockey goes sometimes,” Dvorak said. “That’s the beauty of hockey.”
To look at Dvorak and Gerbe, the two have little in common. Again, the beauty of hockey.
Dvorak is 36, a native of the Czech Republic. He has the classic look of a skilled European-born forward, with a 6-foot-2, 195-pound frame and is light on his skates.
Gerbe? At 5-5, he’s shortest player in the league. He’s 26, a Michigan native, a former star and NCAA champion at Boston College.
Gerbe was drafted by the Buffalo Sabres and played almost 200 games for them. But with a year left on his contract, he was bought out by the Sabres after last season.
Suddenly a free agent, Gerbe agreed to a one-year, two-way contract with the Canes – “two-way” meaning he could be paid a lot less if assigned to the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL, provided he pass through waivers.
“That’s part of the game,” Gerbe said. “For myself, coming off a lot of injuries, I had a lot of faith in myself. I said this year I would just play for the opportunity. I didn’t care what the contract says; I would play for the opportunity.”
Gerbe missed some time early in camp after the death of his brother-in-law in a traffic accident in Michigan, but seemingly returned with added resolve and was one of the Canes’ best forwards in the preseason.
Gerbe scored goals. He killed penalties. He hustled defensively. He made himself valuable.
“We came in open-minded about giving him an opportunity,” Muller said. “It’s safe to say he has taken advantage of it.”
Late in preseason, Gerbe was placed on Jordan Staal’s line opposite Patrick Dwyer. It clicked. Everything fell into place.
“They’re both very responsible, hard-working guys,” Gerbe said. “I just want to be the player I know I can be, just help out offensively, create energy for the team and bring a physical aspect to the game.”
Muller once was Dvorak’s teammate with the Panthers. All these years later, from a coach’s perspective, he believes Dvorak still is effective and can be a calming presence on the ice.
“We were looking for a veteran, an experienced guy, a penalty killer, and he’s come in and done a good job in those areas,” Muller said.
Dvorak recalls being helped along by veterans such as the Panthers’ Rob Niedermayer and Scott Mellanby when he broke into the league as a kid with the Panthers. Now, he’s trying to do the same.
No one can say how the season will play out for Dvorak and Gerbe. Dvorak is, after all, 36. Gerbe has had back issues in the past.
But the opportunity still remains. That’s all they wanted.