THE CULTIVATION ofNathan Gerbe as a hockey prodigy included some stock elements. There was thefrozen pond, of course, on his family's wooded property in Oxford, Mich. Therewere the two older brothers who taught him how to skate and pushed him until hebecame the most competitive and resourceful young player anyone had ever met.And there was the demanding father whose training methods seemed excessive—theearly morning runs at the high school track, for example—but were vindicated asthe greatness emerged in the youngest of his six children.
It is not anoriginal narrative, save for this detail: Gerbe, a junior forward for BostonCollege, stopped growing when he was around 14. Judging by his physique, the5'5", 165-pound Gerbe has no business playing Division I hockey, let alonedominating it as he did last week at the Frozen Four in Denver. Emboldeningundersized skaters everywhere, Gerbe almost single-handedly beat North Dakotain the semifinals, scoring three goals and adding an assist in the Eagles' 6--1victory. Then he potted the first two goals (and later two assists) in a 4--1triumph over Notre Dame in the final last Saturday. After losing in thechampionship game in the previous two seasons, the Eagles won their thirdnational title, and it was all because of the runt of their litter.
"His heartbelongs in a 6'2" guy," says Boston College coach Jerry York, "buthe's also a unique package of ability. He's off the chart [in terms of] hisstick skills and his skating skills, and he has this great understanding of howto play the game. The pressure he brought [against the Irish] was somethingspecial."
Gerbe prefers tocredit his "grit," which Notre Dame defenseman Kyle Lawson, who playedwith him on a junior team in Michigan, can vouch for. "One night [on thedrive home] after a game in which Nate didn't score, his dad pulled onto a dirtroad about two miles from their house," Lawson recalled last Friday."Nate jumped out and started pushing the car home. All the while, his dadand I sat in the car and listened to the Red Wings game." Gerbe says hedoesn't recall the incident but did occasionally push the car to build his legstrength. "I don't think I ever did it after a game," he says."Maybe the next day."
The early morningsat the Oxford High track, the days on the pond and the car pushing—thosetraining tactics were all his choices, Gerbe adds. "It was more me pushingmyself than someone else pushing me," he says.
Still, the roleplayed by his father, Joe, and his brothers is undeniable. "Some days theold man would wake us up and say, 'Do you want to skate on the pond or go toschool?' That was an easy choice," says Joe Gerbe Jr., 29, the oldest ofthe brothers. "Nate and I would go one-on-one, and no matter what he did, Iwouldn't let him go past me. I'd swipe the puck and throw it down to the otherend of the ice. He'd get mad and fly down to get the puck, and we'd goagain."
There werescuffles. 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 fromthe pond crying.
"He would comeinto 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 andhe'd be back out there."
ON THE pond Natelearned to be creative and use his speed against his bigger and strongerbrothers. But he also became selfish with the puck. That changed when he joinedthe 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 goone-on-one," Gerbe says. "The coaches showed me video and talked to meabout how to use other players."
He developed intowhat fellow NTDP member and current Boston Bruins forward Phil Kessel calledhis "favorite teammate ever." Kessel and Gerbe remain close, but Gerbedidn't follow Kessel to the University of Minnesota. He opted instead forBoston College, in part because of the school's history of succeeding withsmall players. "Brian Gionta, Ryan Shannon, they made the footsteps for meto 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 isa 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 noway he won't play in the NHL." (Gerbe was drafted in the fifth round by theBuffalo Sabres in 2005.)
Gerbe jokes thathis greatest gift is his singing voice—he often serenades teammates withcountry ballads—but York and others cite his hands. "Sometimes Gerbs doessomething with the puck, and we just laugh because it's so ridiculous,"says Eagles forward Andy Orpik.
One such momentcame in the second period against Notre Dame. Gerbe twice threaded passes toteammates 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 butwilled his second goal into the net: When a wide shot by Eagles forward BenSmith 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 thatsecond goal epitomizes him," says senior captain Mike Brennan. "He issmall, but he plays big."
After losingheartbreakers to Michigan State last year and Wisconsin in 2006 in the nationalfinals, the Eagles finally "have a season that will never end," saysBrennan. Early on, however, it looked as if it would be a season of lostpromise. Goaltender Cory Schneider signed with the Canucks and turned probefore his senior year. Then junior defensemen Brett Motherwell and BrianO'Hanley were suspended for breaking team rules. Forward Brock Bradford twicebroke his left arm and played in only five games. But freshman goalie John Museplayed better than expected (he had a 2.26 goals-against average during theregular season, then had 20 saves against Notre Dame), as did freshman forwardJoe Whitney and sophomore attacker Smith. Still, Boston College would have beennowhere without its mightiest mite, who tied an NCAA record with seven goals inthe tournament and finished as the nation's leader in points (68) and goals(35).
"He wastremendous on the biggest stage," says Irish coach Jeff Jackson. "Godbless the small guy, because he is fearless."
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Five college players who'll make the biggest impact inthe NHL
James vanRiemsdyk, New Hampshire freshman (Drafted No.2 overall in 2007, by the Flyers) The 6'3" 190-pounder is a well-roundedleft wing with no clear weakness. He's expected to top out at 210 pounds and bea nasty power forward in the NHL.
Ian Cole, Notre Dame freshman (No. 18, 2007, Blues) Thesteady, physical defenseman (6'1", 215) handles the puck well in his ownzone. Cole scored eight goals in 43 games and is the first Notre Dame player tobe taken in the first round.
Kevin Porter, Michigan senior (No. 119, 2004, Coyotes)The Hobey Baker Award winner was second in the nation with 33 goals and 63points. This forward is strong (5'11," 195 pounds) and isn't afraid toskate into traffic.
T.J. Oshie, North Dakota junior (No. 24, 2005, Blues)Creative and enthusiastic in the Scott Gomez mold, he makes the players aroundhim better. At 6 feet and 192 pounds, he will most likely bypass the minors andgo straight to the NHL.
Max Pacioretty, Michigan freshman (No. 22, 2007,Canadiens) This forward has size (6'2", 203), speed, great hands and a nosefor the net. Playing alongside Porter on college hockey's top line, the leftwing had 15 goals and 24 assists in 37 games.
Photograph by David E. Klutho
GRIT LARGE Gerbe, who honed his "chippy" playing style on the family pond, had a record-tying seven goals at the Frozen Four.
Photograph by David E. Klutho
Photograph by David E. Klutho
MUSEWORTHY The Eagles' netminder—the only goalie to play every minute of the season—had 20 saves against Notre Dame.
ED WOLFSTEIN/ICON SMI (VANRIEMSDYK)