It was more like a requirement than a family tradition.
After their freshman years in high school, each of Joe Gerbe’s six children worked summer jobs with their father’s construction company in Oxford, Michigan. Three daughters and three sons, including his youngest, Blue Jackets forward Nathan Gerbe, put in long days helping to install sewer systems, water mains and other ground work for subdivisions, shopping centers and the like.
It was laborious work, grinding through sweltering days that started at sunrise and ended at sunset or later. The girls mixed cement. The boys lugged manhole covers. Joe, who got into that line of work to provide for his growing family, had one main reason for their mandatory attendance.
“I wanted them to know what hard work was,” said the elder Gerbe, now 67, retired and fighting a long battle against diabetes. “I didn’t want them to do what I did for a living, because it’s like six days a week, 12 to 14 hours a day. It’s a hard life … but I chose it because I had six kids.”
The job was about sacrifice and hard work, similar to the way his wife, Terrie, forfeited leisure time while shuttling their kids to uncounted practices and games. Some would be an hour or two each way, but no matter. The miles were logged, often for the benefit of the boys’ hockey development.
Nathan Gerbe hasn’t forgotten.
In fact, his parents’ sacrifices are what he credits most for his life’s successes. He’s now a 32-year-old husband and father of three small children, not to mention a professional hockey player who managed to do something many of his peers haven’t.
Gerbe resurrected an NHL career many presumed dead after he headed to Switzerland four years earlier. Those who choose that route, leaving to play in Europe in their late 20s, almost never return to the NHL.
Ever the worker bee, Gerbe did, returning to North America in 2018 on a two-way contract with the Blue Jackets and eventually earning a role in Columbus this season.
“People always ask me, ‘Why are you always at the rink three hours before games and doing so much extra work?’ “ Gerbe said. “And I think this (season) is why. To go through a process like this, this is to tell myself, ‘You’ve been doing the right things this whole time.’ And you can’t let that waver, because you might only get one chance.”
Deciding to play in Switzerland was a risk, especially for the shortest player to ever play in the NHL.
Gerbe, who’s 5 feet 4, had played six straight years in the NHL with Carolina and Buffalo and entered training camp in 2016-17 with the New York Rangers on a one-year contract. He didn’t make the NHL roster, was placed on waivers and at that point had two options.
One was to play in the American Hockey League with the Rangers’ affiliate, once he cleared waivers. The other was to play in Switzerland’s National League A for Genevé-Servette HC, a team he had signed with the previous summer on a contract that was only binding outside of NHL deals.
He chose the latter.
“I just wanted to try something different,” said Gerbe, who is riding out the COVID-19 pandemic by splitting time between Cleveland and Traverse City, Michigan. “I wanted to have the opportunity to have a team depend on me. It’s a different mindset when you go there and they need you to score every night, so I think getting back to that mentality and feeling good was important for me.”
Having played 394 NHL games with the Sabres and Hurricanes after starring four years at Boston College, Gerbe took the plunge. He moved to Switzerland with his wife, Brennan, and their first two children, and had a strong first season there (11 goals, 17 assists).
The Gerbes returned for a second season (2017-18), but Nathan was plagued with injuries. He also began to pine for the NHL, where the approach to preparing for games was closer to his own.
“I missed the professionalism of the NHL and how everybody, when they come to the rink, it’s a job,” Gerbe said. “It’s not necessarily like that in Europe.”
Gerbe had two goals and five assists in 19 games for Genevé-Servette before a path back to North America emerged, forged through a relationship with Blake Geoffrion, a Blue Jackets scout he’d played with on the U.S. team at the 2007 world junior championship.
After signing with Columbus in January 2018, Gerbe spent the bulk of that season in the AHL with the Cleveland Monsters, though he did play two games with the Blue Jackets.
He also signed a contract extension despite no NHL guarantees.
The first year of that deal was last season, when Gerbe didn’t play a single NHL game and finally addressed multiple injury issues that affected his skating. Midway through the year, he had surgery for a labral tear in his hip and also had two hernias repaired. The recovery lasted seven months, but his speed finally returned near the end of training camp last fall.
Hard work, again, was the key.
“Nobody works like him, so when he has to rehab after surgery, the guy’s a machine,” said Jordan Neumann, Gerbe’s longtime agent. “All the cliché stuff that I think most of these guys don’t really believe in, he really does live by it and believes it. I don’t think you can be 5-foot-4 and have the career he’s had any other way. So, you know it’s genuine. He just maximizes every opportunity.”
Gerbe’s big break arrived this season, and it was a fitting return to the NHL for a player accustomed to hard work.
On Dec. 22, Gerbe undertook a long, taxing journey that included a marathon bus ride to Cleveland from Rockford, Illinois, a four-hour drive from Cleveland to his hometown in Michigan, a visit with his father (who was hospitalized for blood clots), an unexpected return trip the same day to get his gear and then a flight to New York to join the Blue Jackets in Long Island.
He was an emergency recall, replacing injured forward Oliver Bjorkstrand, and the news wasn’t exactly welcome at first.
“I was kind of upset that I had to leave home,” Gerbe said. “I wanted to see my father and spend time with my kids, who I hadn’t seen for a little while, but once I was able to think about everything, I was excited. I’d been waiting for this opportunity. I was going through a whole mix of emotions there.”
After watching his son stay sharp at his summer home in Traverse City, shooting 150 pucks every morning and pulling a weighted sled up and down the driveway, his heart was lifted.
“My reaction was, ‘Great, that’s what he wanted,’ “ the elder Gerbe said. “I didn’t get out of the hospital until two days after Christmas, but they told me he was going to play. I was in a lot of pain at the time, but I said, ‘That’s great.’ “
The next day, Gerbe helped the Blue Jackets upend the New York Islanders 3-2 at Nassau Coliseum, scoring his first NHL goal in almost four years. It was a gorgeous backhand shot, roofed into the top left corner of the net after a puck battle along the end boards.
Back in Michigan, the goal was exactly what the doctor ordered. His dad saw it on a video replay the next day, courtesy of his wife, and it put a smile on his face.
“That one meant a little more,” Nathan Gerbe said, “just because of all the emotions I’d had.”
All three of the Gerbe boys played hockey, and each learned about their father’s standards the hard way.
There were times when Joe would stop the car a couple of miles short of home, on back-country roads, and have one of them jog home ahead of the car. Other times they’d run around a track or push a car around a parking lot.
“I pushed back sometimes,” Nathan Gerbe said. “I mean, you’re a young kid and you’re tired, but my dad’s thing was, ‘If you’re not going to work at the rink, then you’re going to work when you get home.’ Those were tough days, but I cherish it. I think that’s why I like to work so hard now.”
Joe Gerbe’s influence is also noticeable in his son’s playing style, which is “aggressive,” to put it mildly.
“When I was younger, he’d always tell me, ‘First shift, go after the biggest guy on the ice,’ “ Gerbe said. “He would always say, ‘I don’t care what you do, but they need to know you’re never going to be pushed around.’ So that has always stuck in my head. You want to make your presence known and let them know that you’re not going to back down from anything.”
He hasn’t, either.
In the first exhibition game of his NHL career, with the Sabres, Gerbe went right after power forward Rick Nash in a game against the Blue Jackets. He’s also had brushes with 6-9 Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara and many other larger targets, including some incidents this season.
“He has been that way his whole career,” said Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, who first saw Gerbe during practices for a U.S. team he coached in the 2008 world championship. “I’ve coached some smaller guys in height and weight before, which I really don’t measure … and to me, it’s a mental thing, that ‘I’ll show ya,’ attitude. Those guys have a mental toughness about them.”
Gerbe showed it this season, proving that he still has tread left on his NHL tires.
Until another hernia affected his skating in February, an issue that was repaired in March, Gerbe became a key player for the Jackets while nearly half their regular roster was out.
He scored goals that sparked comeback wins in Los Angeles and Anaheim, finished with four goals and 10 points in 30 games and his versatility allowed Tortorella to plug him into multiple spots. Gerbe also played his 400th NHL game, and signed a two-year contract extension.
“It was a long road (here), but when I look back at just the journey it has been, in 12 years, the thing I’m most proud of with my family is that we’ve never changed through any adversity,” he said. “You move, city after city, but as long as you don’t change as a person, that’s the real goal.”
Anybody have a manhole cover he can lug?
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