Nathan Gerbe was always told he was too small to play hockey.
A few years ago, the Buffalo Sabres told Gerbe they didn’t want him anymore, buying out his contract and making him a free agent.
At one point, Gerbe had back issues that were so severe his wife had to help dress him, leaving him to wonder if his hockey career might be over.
But Gerbe has become an effective player for the Carolina Hurricanes with his relentlessness and competitiveness, and the forward has been nominated as the team candidate for the 2015 Masterton Trophy by the Carolina chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association.
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The Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy is presented annually by the PHWA to the NHL player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. Masterton, who played for the Minnesota North Stars, died Jan. 15, 1968, after sustaining head injuries during a game.
“It’s humbling to be thought of in that category and to be nominated,” Gerbe said. “Knowing a lot of guys who won it in the past, they all have incredible stories.”
Dominic Moore of the New York Rangers was the 2014 Masterton recipient. Moore took a long leave of absence from the Rangers in 2012 to be with his wife, Katie, who struggled with cancer before her death in January 2013.
At 5-foot-5, Gerbe is one of the shortest players in the NHL. A star at Boston College, the Michigan native was drafted by the Sabres in 2005 and became a staple in the Sabres’ lineup.
Gerbe tried to play through a back injury suffered in December 2011, but the condition worsened. It resulted in offseason surgery in 2012 and an extensive rehabilitation period.
“My wife was dressing me every morning, putting socks on, shoes on,” he said. “You can barely move, and you think. ‘I’ve got to go back and hit people and get hit and skate and catch up with the speed of the NHL.’ It’s nerve-racking.”
The NHL lockout shortened the 2012-2013 season, allowing Gerbe more time to recover, but soon after the season the Sabres let him go. Gerbe signed a one-year, two-way deal with the Hurricanes with no guarantees of making their NHL roster.
“I was disappointed with the way things turned out in Buffalo,” Gerbe said. “But you move on, and I’m thankful Carolina gave me a chance to prove myself again.”
Just before training camp, Gerbe’s brother-in-law was killed in a traffic accident in Michigan and he left to be with his sister and her children. Once back, he became a consistent contributor, playing 81 games in 2013-2014 and matching career highs in goals (16) and points (31).
“He’s had to push through, I’m sure, a lot of obstacles,” Canes center Jordan Staal said. “There’s not a lot of guys his size who play in the NHL. For him to be able to do that and succeed at it definitely shows his character and his work ethic.”
Gerbe, 27, signed a two-year, $3.5 million contract extension with Carolina last June. He then had to prove himself to a new head coach, Bill Peters.
Gerbe’s goal-scoring has dipped – he has seven in 69 games – this season, but he has been a big part of Carolina’s improved penalty killing and on Thursday was on the top line with Jordan and Eric Staal in a 5-2 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“His compete level overcomes any lack of size that he has,” Peters said. “He’s a very valuable player.”
Off the ice, Gerbe has been active with various charities, including military-support organizations such as “Defending the Blue Line,” which funds hockey programs for the children of armed-service members.
Gerbe calls himself a “pest” on the ice who agitates opponents – the little guy who plays big.
“Growing up you have to be mentally strong and get ready to prove everybody wrong, and I still have that attitude,” Gerbe said. “You’ve got to have that chip on your shoulder going into games.”
Canes sign players: The Canes on Friday signed defenseman Brett Pesce and goalie Alex Nedeljkovic to three-year, entry-level contracts. Both will report to the Charlotte Checkers (AHL).
Pesce played college hockey at New Hampshire, and Nedeljkovic completed his third season with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League. Whalers defenseman Josh Wesley, son of former Canes star Glen Wesley, also will report to Charlotte to practice with the Checkers.