Nathan Gerbe’s Carolina comeback fueled by personal tragedy

Nathan Gerbe just wanted to get back on the ice last summer.

The course of his career had suddenly changed. The diminutive winger – he’s listed at 5-foot-5 – had spent his five-year career with the Buffalo Sabres, but injuries had limited his time and his output. He needed spinal surgery after a Marc-Andre Bourdon hit in Dec. 2011, plagued by neck and back discomfort.

In 2013, he had 10 points in 42 games; the Sabres then used a compliance buyout on bought out Gerbe, cashing out the final two years of his contract to open up a roster spot. The Carolina Hurricanes took a chance on him, signing him to a 1-year, 2-way contract for $550,000.

Nathan Gerbe just wanted to get back on the ice. But then tragedy struck.

One day before Hurricanes training camp, Gerbe’s brother-in-law Billy Kochis and another man were killed when their car was rear-ended by a pickup truck. Kochis left Gerbe’s sister Shannon and four children behind.

“It’s something that’s going to hurt forever. It’s never going to go away,” said Gerbe at the time.

The Hurricanes allowed him to grieve with his family. He would return to camp over a week later.

Then, Nathan Gerbe needed to get back on the ice.

He had something to prove, to himself and his new team. And he needed hockey as a way to work through his personal pain.

“It fuels me. I know how much he loved me. I know he’s watching every single game up there. He doesn’t miss them. He never did,” said Gerbe on Thursday, after the Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Washington Capitals.

“I just want to go out there, work hard and please him too.”

Gerbe has been one of the team’s most pleasant surprises this season, scoring four points in five games, including three goals. He also brings the speed and tenacity – Gerbe’s always been an effective pest – that made an impact during his days in Buffalo.

“He’s doing a lot of things well. It’s nice to see him get rewarded for all the little things he does,” said coach Kirk Muller.

(Yes, he said "little things" in relation to Nathan Gerbe...)

He skated with Elias Lindholm and Jeff Skinner in camp, but Gerbe has found a home with Patrick Dwyer and Jordan Staal in the regular season. The line generates shots and offensive chances, using speed and a net presence to overwhelm opponents.

“Playing with Jordan and Pat, they’re two great players. We’ve been able to create some chemistry, starting in the preseason, and then having that roll through. Playing with them makes the game much simpler,” he said.

Eric Staal has appreciated the effort from Gerbe since joining the Canes.

“He came into camp having to put the work in. He really proved that to management, coaches and even the players,” he said. “He’s got the offensive talent to make skill plays, but he’s also got the work ethic.”

That work ethic is born, partially, from a desire to prove those that have doubted him wrong.“The last couple of years have been about injuries. But it gave me time to work on my game, to know what I’m capable of. Luckily, these guys have given me a chance,” said Gerbe.

It’s a chance he’s making the most of, even weighed down with a heavy heart.

“I think about it every single day,” he said of the loss of his brother-in-law. “There’s not a minute that goes by when I don’t think about it.

“Family’s No. 1 in our lives. It really put things in perspective.”