April 15, 2008

The cultivation of Nathan Gerbe as a hockey prodigy included some stock elements. There was the frozen pond, of course, on his family's wooded property in Oxford, Mich. There were the two older brothers who taught him how to skate and pushed him until he became the most competitive and resourceful young player anyone had ever met. And there was the demanding father whose training methods seemed excessive -- the early morning runs at the high school track, for example -- but were vindicated as the greatness emerged in the youngest of his six children.

It is not an original narrative, save for this detail: Gerbe, a junior forward for Boston College, stopped growing when he was around 14. Judging by his physique, the 5' 5", 165-pound Gerbe has no business playing Division I hockey, let alone dominating it as he did last week at the Frozen Four in Denver. Emboldening undersized skaters everywhere, Gerbe almost single-handedly beat North Dakota in the semifinals, scoring three goals and adding an assist in the Eagles' 6-1 victory. Then he potted the first two goals (and later two assists) in a 4-1 triumph over Notre Dame in the final last Saturday. After losing in the championship game in the previous two seasons, the Eagles won their third national title, and it was all because of the runt of their litter.

"His heart belongs in a 6' 2" guy," says Boston College coach Jerry York, "but he's also a unique package of ability. He's off the chart [in terms of] his stick skills and his skating skills, and he has this great understanding of how to play the game. The pressure he brought [against the Irish] was something special."

Gerbe prefers to credit his "grit," which Notre Dame defenseman Kyle Lawson, who played with him on a junior team in Michigan, can vouch for. "One night [on the drive home] after a game in which Nate didn't score, his dad pulled onto a dirt road about two miles from their house," Lawson recalled last Friday. "Nate jumped out and started pushing the car home. All the while, his dad and I sat in the car and listened to the Red Wings game." Gerbe says he doesn't recall the incident but did occasionally push the car to build his leg strength. "I don't think I ever did it after a game," he says. "Maybe the next day."

The early mornings at the Oxford High track, the days on the pond and the car pushing -- those training tactics were all his choices, Gerbe adds. "It was more me pushing myself than someone else pushing me," he says.

Still, the role played by his father, Joe, and his brothers is undeniable. "Some days the old man would wake us up and say, 'Do you want to skate on the pond or go to school?' That was an easy choice," says Joe Gerbe Jr., 29, the oldest of the brothers. "Nate and I would go one-on-one, and no matter what he did, I wouldn't let him go past me. I'd swipe the puck and throw it down to the other end of the ice. He'd get mad and fly down to get the puck, and we'd go again."

There were scuffles. The brothers are, to use their own word, "chippy" players. Nate took the brunt of the beatings because, as Joe Jr. says with a shrug, "that happens when you're the youngest." Some days Nate would run from the pond crying.

"He would come into the house and tell me that his brothers cheated and that it wasn't fair, and I would agree with him," says his mother, Terrie. "I'd tell him, 'Just stay in here with me.' That lasted about two minutes. I'd turn around and he'd be back out there."

On the pond Nate learned to be creative and use his speed against his bigger and stronger brothers. But he also became selfish with the puck. That changed when he joined the U.S. National Team Development Program (NTDP) in Ann Arbor, Mich., at 16. "When I got there, I was still the kid on the pond trying to go one-on-one," Gerbe says. "The coaches showed me video and talked to me about how to use other players."

He developed into what fellow NTDP member and current Boston Bruins forward Phil Kessel called his "favorite teammate ever." Kessel and Gerbe remain close, but Gerbe didn't follow Kessel to the University of Minnesota. He opted instead for Boston College, in part because of the school's history of succeeding with small players. "Brian Gionta, Ryan Shannon, they made the footsteps for me to follow," Gerbe says. He is most often compared with the 5' 7" Gionta, but one NHL scout at the Frozen Four likened him to another New Jersey Devil. "He reminds me of [5' 11"] Zach Parise," says the scout. "He is a spark plug who is just going all the time."

Adds Kessel, "He's got a skill set as good as anybody I've ever played with. There's no way he won't play in the NHL." (Gerbe was drafted in the fifth round by the Buffalo Sabres in 2005.)

Gerbe jokes that his greatest gift is his singing voice -- he often serenades teammates with country ballads -- but York and others cite his hands. "Sometimes Gerbs does something with the puck, and we just laugh because it's so ridiculous," says Eagles forward Andy Orpik.

One such moment came in the second period against Notre Dame. Gerbe twice threaded passes to teammates cycling down low, and then he slid forward and, from the left slot, one-timed a shot to the far corner of the net. Three minutes later he all but willed his second goal into the net: When a wide shot by Eagles forward Ben Smith bounced off the boards, Gerbe dived headfirst and, as he slid on the ice, swung his stick and knocked the puck inside the near post.

"I think that second goal epitomizes him," says senior captain Mike Brennan. "He is small, but he plays big."

After losing heartbreakers to Michigan State last year and Wisconsin in 2006 in the national finals, the Eagles finally "have a season that will never end," says Brennan. Early on, however, it looked as if it would be a season of lost promise. Goaltender Cory Schneider signed with the Canucks and turned pro before his senior year. Then junior defensemen Brett Motherwell and Brian O'Hanley were suspended for breaking team rules. Forward Brock Bradford twice broke his left arm and played in only five games. But freshman goalie John Muse played better than expected (he had a 2.26 goals-against average during the regular season, then had 20 saves against Notre Dame), as did freshman forward Joe Whitney and sophomore attacker Smith. Still, Boston College would have been nowhere without its mightiest mite, who tied an NCAA record with seven goals in the tournament and finished as the nation's leader in points (68) and goals (35).

"He was tremendous on the biggest stage," says Irish coach Jeff Jackson. "God bless the small guy, because he is fearless."

You May Like