Athletes pride themselves on their conditioning and exercise routines, even Kyle Wellwood is starting to catch on. Growing up, Nathan Gerbe had a very intensive tactic to help him build leg strength: pushing an automobile all on his own. In his hometown of Detroit, Michigan, he'd find an empty parking lot or rural road, shift the car in neutral and push on the rear bumper.
"I never pushed it home, but on workout days I would push it around the track to try to gain strength any way I could," Gerbe said. "I’d use whatever car was available – sometimes an SUV, sometimes a sports car."
That commitment brought the winger to NCAA greatness, including MVP honors in the Frozen Four Tournament, a Dudley Garret Memorial Trophy in the American Hockey League which goes to the best rookie and now a permanent roster spot with the Buffalo Sabres.
At 5' 5", Gerbe is shorter than the stick he uses—the longest shaft that the league will allow is 63 inches, and that's what the 23-year-old opts for. Although his measurement is two inches higher than that, the blade's attachment still has to enter the foray. But Gerbe is not the first player below six-feet vertically to surge into the National Hockey League; far from it.
Brian Gionta (5' 7") captains the beloved, or loathed, and historic Montreal Canadiens, coming out of Boston College like Gerbe. Martin St. Louis (5' 8"), an undrafted forward who was released by both the Ottawa Senators and Calgary Flames, is the heart and soul of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Daniel Briere (5' 10") is a big-game producer for the Philadelphia Flyers after increasing his stock in Buffalo for a few years.
As is typical, questions about Gerbe's adaptability in the rough and tumble NHL abounded. How else do you explain him being passed up until the fifth round and 142nd overall in the 2005 Entry Draft? While he may look like he couldn't crack a nut out of its shell, the youngster is deceptively strong and notoriously difficult to maneuver off the puck.
This year, Gerbe began to forge his own identity with the Buffalo Sabres, a club that builds through its pipeline amazingly. Head coach Lindy Ruff utilized 18 players in 2011, some more than others, who were selected by Buffalo at the meeting of minds known as the draft. Undoubtedly, he was rusty early on this season, missing time with a jaw injury or as a healthy scratch.
But as he got started in January, he replicated the famed Energizer Bunny: he kept going and going. A haul of 15 goals and 16 assists, most of which occurred in the last 40 games, enlightened Gerbe with rave reviews. He is a finisher and a distributor, of that we already know. There is much more that he can engineer though, and a lot of opponents will attest to that.
His never-ending determination is fantastic and persuaded Ruff that he was prepared to keep it up, even while being on the wrong end of a lopsided scoreline. Hosting the New York Islanders months ago, Buffalo was deflated and trailing by four goals as the minutes waned; however, Gerbe's fighting spirit was not contained.
He went on to do the unthinkable—score twice in five seconds, by first going on a solo dash and then tucking a rolling puck underneath the crossbar. This two-goal burst set a franchise record and evened a mark from Pete Mahovlich for the third-quickest brace in the league's history. In light of the 5-2 defeat, Gerbe's accomplishment was a consolation feat, but it worthily drew attention.
If you think he hesitates to trespass into the corners and beside the boards for pucks, think again. Although Ruff designs a "little and large" line combination with Gerbe,—often penciling Paul Gaustad, Cody McCormick or Mark Mancari to join him—it's not a means of protection. Gerbe takes care of himself and launches his body at bigger men routinely or grinds away for possession.
In throwing checks and putting himself straight into the way of others, it can be infuriating. During the fourth of sixth fixtures versus Montreal, Gerbe drew a total of four penalties and Scott Gomez was fuming.
Why is this? Well, Gerbe suckered him into two late infractions, including one which resulted in an overtime winner from Jason Pominville on the powerplay. That wasn't the last of him slicing up the Canadiens; there's the clutch shoot-out conversion in February that exemplified cool nerves, and a pair of tallies that quieted the Bell Centre in March.
Drew Stafford, one of the restricted free agents on Buffalo's lengthy list, signed a four-year, $16 million contract extension last week. One down and a few more to go, as Gerbe, Andrej Sekera, Chris Butler, Mike Weber, Marc-Andre Gragnani, Mark Mancari and Jhonas Enroth await their next deal.
Symptomatic of the club's poised fightback in the season, culminating in a playoff berth, a number of those names littered games with prevalent contributions. While Mancari or Butler might have to ply their trades elsewhere, Gerbe is someone that General Manager Darcy Regier will want to ink for the future.
For an organization that puts a premium on home-grown players—Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek, Derek Roy, Tyler Ennis and Jason Pominville were all ushered into the NHL from the farm—the Buffalo Sabres don't like other teams bearing the fruits of their labor. And Gerbe has too many qualities to pass up on.
Scoring, passing, tenacity, agitation, hitting, versatility—you name it, and there's a chance that he will provide it. That is quite the packaged deal for one human being, making it very hard for opponents to silence him.
Whatever the case, Nathan Gerbe's career should be observed with interest for more reasons than simply his height.
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