Throughout Nathan Gerbe’s lengthy professional hockey career, he has displayed perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey every step of the way. Even more so since his return to North America in the winter of 2018. Every day Gerbe continues to show the league that a successful and long career in sports goes hand in hand with a strong resolve and a positive mindset.
On January 24th, 2018, the Columbus Blue Jackets signed forward Nathan Gerbe to a one year, two-way contract which would expire at the end of the 2017-18 season. At the time, Gerbe was playing in his second season for Geneve-Servette of the Swiss National League (NLA).
Some North American players thrive in European leagues. While others might struggle with the differences between European and North American hockey. “European hockey is played differently. The mentality is different,” said Gerbe of the differences between pro hockey in Europe and North America, “Everything from the way they run an organization to the players and everything it’s so different than what I was used to in the NHL Or North American Pro.” Despite always being able to push himself mentally and physically, Gerbe couldn’t find a firm hold on the European hockey world. He went to Europe looking for a change and discovered playing overseas wasn’t what he actually wanted to do.
During this time of epiphany, Blake Geoffrion, Gerbe’s former roommate at World Juniors, reached out to him to have a regular conversation between friends. One question made Gerbe’s ears perk. “He asked if I was interested in coming back and so, that piqued my interest,” reminisced Gerbe, “We kind of kept in contact and then Billy Zito got involved.” Four months worth of conversations with Zito and Geoffrion about returning to North America happened before Gerbe decided to sign with the Blue Jackets organization. During these conversations, all three of them came to the conclusion that starting out with the Cleveland Monsters was the best case scenario for him. “They needed more stability from a leadership standpoint in Cleveland,” explained Gerbe, “and they needed someone they could rely on to call up.” From Gerbe’s standpoint, starting with the Monsters would allow him a chance to prove himself while being in a leadership role he naturally excels at both on and off the ice.
Gerbe wore the Monsters sweater for the first time on January 25th, 2018. Within a few weeks, he skyrocketed up the list of fan favorites in Cleveland. Gerbe’s strong leadership and captivating personality over a short period of time led him to be selected the team’s captain for the 2018-19 seasons. This was the first captain the Monsters had since Ryan Craig retired at the end of the 2016-17 season.
Halfway through his first season as the official leader of the Monsters, Gerbe went down with an injury forcing him to finish the year on the injured reserve list.
Shortly after the 2019 AHL All-Star Classic, Gerbe had major surgery to repair his hip labrum. “That’s a six month therapy,” explained Gerbe, “in between that I had bilateral hernia surgeries in April.” Multiple surgeries and lengthy physical therapy kept Gerbe away from the ice through the end of summer. However, the injuries couldn’t keep him away from the game of hockey.
During the recovery process, Gerbe was still engaged in the game and constantly offered advice to his fellow teammates. “I try to give tips to guys,” Gerbe explained, “What I’m seeing. What they should be working on. What they should be focusing on.” As the 2018-19 season drew to a close, his input began to help some of the younger players figure out what type of player they truly are at the professional level. “A lot of these guys just don’t know what role that is. And they get a little confused and lost out there,” Gerbe said of players trying to figure out who they are on the ice, “I think I’m maybe sometimes brutally honest. But that’s the only way I know how to do things is with hard honesty.” Helping players, including himself, figure out who they are at the AHL level makes the transition to the NHL go smoothly. If a player already knows the role they fill, they can just glide right into that spot with near perfect ease.
Even though Gerbe was actively helping others succeed, he recognized the value of taking care of himself as well. Something athletes don’t often talk about is the toll injuries take on a player’s mental health. Age and medical procedures add even more stress to an athlete’s mental state while recovering from injury. “Getting injured puts you in a big unknown area,” explained Gerbe, “When you have the major surgeries that I did at the age I am, it makes you question whether you can play this game or not. That alone puts people in a bad place mentally.” The copious amounts of unknowns and the sporadic nature of professional sports scares athletes a bit when they are healthy. Throw an injury into the mix and the struggle to maintain positivity begins.
Over his lengthy career in hockey, Gerbe has dealt with many injuries and worked hard to create a more positive mindset to help him stay sharp while recovering. “You have the ability to fight your thoughts and change the narrative to be positive,” said Gerbe, “That’s something I’m pretty good at. Not that I’ve always been good at it. I put in a ton of work to be good at it.” Gerbe went on to explain how his focus and energy have shifted to maintaining positive mental health, “I see how important and powerful it is with your body and your everyday mental state.”
At the start of the 2019-20 season, Gerbe and Zac Dalpe were named co-captains of the Monsters. Instead of scoffing at the idea of sharing the “C”, Gerbe embraced being able to work side by side with Dalpe. “It’s nice to have the honor of sharing the captaincy with him (Zac Dalpe) and to grow together,” Gerbe said fondly.
With their alternate captain, Dillon Simpson, by their side, the Monsters were able to make a huge splash to start out the 2019-20 season. Unfortunately, between the Blue Jackets and the Monsters, the injuries began to pile up leaving the Monsters depleted and without their captain again. Except this time, Gerbe didn’t get injured. Instead, he was called up by the Blue Jackets to help fill one of the many holes left open by the injury bug.
As Gerbe’s stint in Columbus lingered on, more Monsters began to be called up to fill in for those nursing their battle wounds. Having the captain of the Monsters on the Blue Jackets roster helped them adjust to the speed and stress of the NHL a little bit better. “I think what the guys know they have in me is someone they can always talk to and someone that’s always going to be honest with them,” said Gerbe of his relationship with his teammates, “I love to help. I’ve been around a lot of players. I’ve seen a lot of different things. Gone through a lot of adversity myself and I can help a lot of guys. Especially, when it comes to the mental aspect of the game.”
For Gerbe, it is important to always lift up his teammates and help them become better athletes. In his mind, when they succeed, he succeeds as well. “We’re not just competing against each other. I want to see the best out of them too,” explained Gerbe, “Selfishly, I want to play every single game and be in the lineup but at the same time I want other kids to realize what they can get to, their potential,and how much work they need to put into the game to get to that level.”
While in Columbus, Gerbe came to appreciate Head Coach John Tortorella even more than he already did. “I appreciate his honesty, positive or negative. He’s gonna give you both,” Gerbe proudly said of Coach Tortorella, “He’s not one of those coaches that just yell at you all the time for doing bad things. He’s there for the good things. I think that’s so important for players to understand and learn that it’s not someone that’s just on you because you’re doing it wrong, but he’s someone that’s there when you’re doing it right too.”
From Europe to North America there was one constant in Gerbe’s life helping him keep the positive mentality and holding him accountable, his wife.
“Just seeing how she works and her dedication and her sacrifice for myself and our children is inspiring enough for me to not have bad days,” Gerbe said of his wife. Together they have worked hard to cultivate a positive atmosphere in their house and amongst their family members. “We expect a good attitude around the house. I think we hold everyone in the house to that standard and that expectation,” explained Gerbe, “But it’s (attitude) is very contagious. We don’t like the negativity to creep into the house.”
Being on the same page about mental health has helped them grow together as both a couple and individuals. He made a point to state how easy conversation comes when “no egos are involved” and everyone is open and honest. “I got to have the ability to listen to her when she wants to share something with me that would be critical to help me and vice versa.” Gerbe’s willingness to have open and honest communication has spread to the ice as well. Sometimes on ice and off ice personalities mesh in a beautiful way.
As you can see, family is important to the Gerbes. Which is why when Zito phoned around Christmas to say Gerbe had earned a call up to the Columbus there were a few mixed emotions.
“That was a day I’ll always remember because it was so bittersweet. There were so many different emotions,” Gerbe said of the emotions going through his mind upon receiving the callup, “I was so happy to go home. I hadn’t seen my dad in a while. So, I was excited to get to the hospital and spend Christmas with him.” The prospect of being home for Christmas for the first time in a long time had Gerbe over the moon with excitement. To be able to spend the holiday with both of his parents, his wife, and children sounded like a perfect dream.
But, then the phone rang right as Gerbe pulled into the hospital parking lot.
“You know, when I saw his (Bill Zito) name, my heart about dropped because I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t even know if I want to go because I’m so happy to see my dad and my kids’.” explained Gerbe. Before making the call back to Zito, Gerbe had an in depth talk with his wife about the prospect which awaited him. At the end of their conversation, they made the decision, together, that Gerbe would accept the call up.”It was a lot of emotions. Very positive emotions too. I was happy but you know, on the personal side of it and seeing my dad, selfishly, I wanted to stay at home for Christmas,” explained Gerbe, “I was very blessed and appreciative to get that call but at the same time I was sad in some ways.”
After calling Zito back, Gerbe drove all the way back to Cleveland, grabbed his gear, and hopped a flight to New York where he would play the next night at Nassau Coliseum against the Islanders. In true Gerbe fashion, he played his heart out and scored a goal against the Islanders proving that the Jackets made the right choice in who they were calling up at the time.
When professional hockey returns, Gerbe is unsure if he will be in the line up on a nightly basis or in the press box. In his mind, being a scratched member of a winning team provides as much excitement and energy as being in the starting lineup of a winning team. “When you’re on winning teams in your career it just helps everybody no matter what role you play,” explained Gerbe, “If I’m in the lineup, I’m going to do whatever I can to help this team win. If I’m not in the lineup, I’m going to push players as much as I can in practice, physically and mentally, and try to just get everyone pushing a little bit more.”
Between his healthy, positive mindset and the back up his family provides, Gerbe will be able to handle whatever challenge presents itself when hockey starts back up again. Even if it means watching the Blue Jackets or Monsters win from the press box.