Nathan Gerbe sat at his locker Friday at Raleigh Center Ice, trying to catch his breath after an informal workout.
So much has happened to Gerbe since he first walked in the room a little more than a year ago, coming to the Carolina Hurricanes with a one-year, two-way contract, minimum pay and no guarantees. He was a 5-foot-5 forward who had been bought out by the Buffalo Sabres and hoping to prove he could still play in the NHL.
“Last year it was a tough summer for me, just getting a contract and getting a chance,” Gerbe said. “When a team tells you they don’t want you and you can’t play anymore, that sticks in your head.”
The Canes gave him the chance. Gerbe took it from there, playing 81 games, matching his career highs in goals (16) and points (31) while ranking third on the team in shots with a career-best 221.
“You only get so many opportunities in this league to kind of make your mark,” Gerbe said. “I knew last year was kind of my last one. I found a way to believe in myself again.”
But Gerbe, 27, also had to deal with some personal tragedy. Just as the Canes’ training camp was about to begin in early September, he learned his brother-in-law, Billy Kochis, had been killed in a traffic accident near Grand Rapids, Mich.
After spending time in Michigan with his family, Gerbe returned to camp with added resolve, determined to push even harder. As Gerbe likes to say, he put on his “work boots” and went to it.
“That’s what life’s about,” he said. “Whether it’s sports, business world, it’s about fighting through adversity. Every kid in this locker room goes through their own adversity. In their own life, everyone fights it. You hear all these stories and they’re amazing. There’s no reason you can’t fight through it every day and look at the bright side.”
Gerbe scored in his first game with the Canes – a power-play goal against the Detroit Red Wings in the 2013-2014 season opener – and had three goals in the first four games. A hustler on the penalty kill, he also had two shorthanded goals during the season.
Then there was the goal against the Philadelphia Flyers. Remember that one? Flyers goalie Steve Mason does.
Gerbe went between his legs with the puck and flipped it past Mason in the Jan. 22 road game at Wells Fargo Center as the Canes won 3-2.
While that highlight goal went viral on YouTube, it was Gerbe’s combination of speed and relentlessness that caught the eye of new Canes coach Bill Peters. While the Canes won’t be a big team, Peters has used Gerbe as an example of a quick, smaller player who can be effective.
“He’s a guy who’s a factor,” Peters said. “You don’t have to be tall to be a competitor.”
Gerbe agreed to a new contract with the Canes on June 24, a two-year deal that guarantees him $1.5 million this season and $2 million in 2015-2016. That offers more financial security and some personal serenity, but Gerbe said it won’t change his approach.
“I work harder,” he said, smiling. “That’s who I am. It doesn’t matter. I could have 5- or 10-year (contract) and I still pride myself on being the hardest working guy and try to make sure I out-compete everyone.”
During informal workouts last week, Gerbe was the last player off the ice a few days. He lined up pucks and worked on his shot, on a quick release, giving a few tips to Jordan Staal.
“It’s just who I am,” Gerbe said. “I’ve been like that since day one as a baby. It’ll never change.”
NOTE: For the second straight year, Chad Ware, a U.S. Army captain stationed at Fort Bragg, won the Canes 5k Sunday at PNC Arena. The event attracted 500 runners and raised about $30,000 for the Hurricanes’ Kids ‘N Community Foundation.