ROCHESTER – Ten years ago, Nathan Gerbe ranked among hockey’s biggest prospects. Following a dynamic NCAA career at Boston College, the diminutive winger quickly morphed into one of the American Hockey League’s top scorers with the Portland Pirates.
In the midst of a 30-goal, 56-point rookie campaign in 2008-09, Gerbe earned his first promotions to the Sabres. By late the next season, he started carving out regular NHL duty.
“I didn’t really pay attention to the outside hype or the outside pressures,” Gerbe said Friday following the Cleveland Monsters’ 3-1 loss to the Amerks in Blue Cross Arena.
While Gerbe never developed into a lethal NHL scorer, he spent three full seasons with the Sabres and has played 396 NHL games. His mix of skill and grit helped him score a career-high 16 goals and push the Sabres into the playoffs in 2010-11 before they bought him out in 2013.
Now, after three seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes and a year and a half in Switzerland, Gerbe, 31, has come full circle.
The Michigan native is back in the AHL, this time as captain of the Monsters, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ affiliate.
Gerbe left Geneve Servette, his Swiss club – “There was just some weird stuff going on,” he said – and returned to North America last season, signing a two-year, two-way deal with the Blue Jackets.
“I decided to come back and get away from it,” said Gerbe, who didn’t offer specifics into what happened.
Gerbe chose the Blue Jackets because he believes they can make a deep playoff run.
“I hope to get a chance up there to play,” said Gerbe, who played two games with Columbus last season.
Gerbe hasn’t changed much in 10 years. He’s still a passionate, gritty force.
Speed and soft hands are just part of his repertoire. At just 5-foot-4, he must consistently showcase tenacity to thrive at hockey’s highest levels.
Few players can match his effort, whether it’s during a game, a practice or in the gym.
“It’s kind of just desperation work,” Gerbe said. “I enjoy it, I enjoy trying to outcompete everybody and being one of the best players every day in practice is something I try to be. I’ve always done that in my career. Looking back, I’m never going to have a time I regretted.”
Monsters coach John Madden knows Gerbe’s work ethic can rub off on the Blue Jackets’ AHL prospects. That’s why he was chosen captain.
“A young player, it’s so beneficial to watch a … guy go about his business and be at the rink early, work on different things,” Madden said. “He’s always got new drills he’s working, he’s always in the weight room.
“It’s his whole package of what he does to get ready for a practice and how well he practices and he’s hard on himself in practices if he’s having a bad one.”
Gerbe wants his habits to rub off on his teammates.
“I enjoy pulling others to work with me,” Gerbe said. “That’s something I try to be infectious with, is just work, work, work. Once guys start to realize you come every day to work and improve your game, they may have their chance to play in the NHL and achieve their dreams.”
Gerbe scored the Monsters' lone goal in a 2-1 overtime home loss to the Amerks on Saturday. He has compiled six goals and 21 points in 27 contests this season.
His mentoring role doesn’t surprise Sabres winger Jason Pominville, Gerbe’s friend and former teammate.
“I can definitely see him being a great veteran to have around, just because of the energy he has every day at the rink,” Pominville said. “(He) shows up with a smile on his face and works hard and that reflects a lot of guys in the room.”
Pominville’s remembers playing with Gerbe and how he routinely would frustrate the opposition and draw penalties.
“He plays that in-your-face style,” Pominville said.
Then tilted his head up and grinned to mimic how Gerbe would rile up his opponents.
“He would just kind of stand there and chirp them and they would take penalties,” Pominville said. “He would just laugh and skate away. He did a tremendous job at that.”
Pominville caught up with Gerbe during the Monsters’ visit to KeyBank Center to play the Amerks on Nov. 7. They have stayed in contact over the years, and Gerbe keeps close tabs on the Sabres.
“The past five, seven years it’s been tough,” Gerbe said. “But it’s been fun to watch. They’re a fun team, I hope they do well. I’m always rooting for them.”