One year ago, it was possible that Nathan Gerbe would become the part inspiration, part on-ice Swiss Army knife for a surging Blue Jackets team that he has in fact become.
It was also possible that by this point, his hockey career would be over.
After playing a game for the Cleveland Monsters on Feb. 1 of last year, Gerbe realized it was time to step away from the sport he loves.
A veteran of nearly 400 NHL games and an 11-year pro at the time, he needed surgery on the labrum in one hip as well as double hernia surgery. Pain he had dealt with for a couple of seasons -- so bad that there were times he couldn't walk after games, or he had to stand for hours on AHL bus rides because sitting was just too difficult -- was simply too much.
So Gerbe elected to go under the knife. For a player who uses a tremendously powerful core to overcome being one of the shortest players in NHL history if not the shortest, there was no guarantee that at age 32 that he'd ever return to the level at which he'd been accustomed to playing.
A year later, it's fair to say things worked out. Gerbe was ready to go by training camp and appeared good as new when he began the season with Cleveland, scoring nearly a point per game with eight goals and 17 assists in 30 games.
And then in late December, the reward came. As injuries racked up in Columbus, Gerbe was called up to the Blue Jackets and has since become a full-time player, skating in the last 18 games for a Columbus team that has lost just twice in regulation in that span. Sunday, he signed a two-year, two-way contract extension with the Blue Jackets that will keep him in the organization through 2022.
For someone who had played just two NHL games, both with Columbus, since the end of the 2016 season, the year has been a whirlwind but also a special one.
"When you think back at all the rehab and all the work that you put in, it's nice to be here at that moment because you know what the last year has been like and the sacrifices you needed to make," he said. "I'm thankful I have a lot of people around me supporting me and helping me out."
Considering there are about as many players 21 and under in the NHL as there are 32 or older in the league, it would be an inspirational story if Gerbe had just returned to the Monsters or even just played a single game with the Blue Jackets this year.
But you could make an argument he's also been one of the most important players on the team since his late-December recall, and it has little to do with his three goals and five assists in that span.
To head coach John Tortorella, it's no mistake the Blue Jackets have been on a roll since the arrival of Gerbe. Sure, he has excellent hands, hockey smarts and can play in all situations. But it's his work ethic and ability to play the right way that Tortorella has said rubs off on the entire Columbus team.
"He's contagious," Tortorella said. "The way he carries himself, the way he is a pro, a guy that has played this way in all the leagues. He's played on 100 different teams throughout his career, and he just plays with energy. I think when we started getting banged up a little bit, it's something that kind of glues us a little bit as far as how we have to play.
"He's so good for our National Hockey League players and has been for our minor league players down in the American League."
It is also clear that Gerbe has become a fan favorite in his short time with the Blue Jackets. It's hard not to root for someone who stands just 5-foot-4 and is still able to excel in a land of giants -- the photo that went viral of Gerbe skating beside 6-foot-9 Boston defenseman Zdeno Chara is stunning -- and Gerbe plays with no fear.
Perhaps the most obvious example of that came Jan. 18 when Gerbe got tied up behind a play with 6-foot-2 New Jersey defenseman Damon Severson. After a series of cross-checks by Severson to Gerbe, the Blue Jackets forward fought back, and the two had to separated by officials.
As the Nationwide Arena crowd went nuts, Gerbe skated away, flipping his hair as chants of his name rained down from the home faithful.
"It's special," he said of earning the respect of the fan base so quickly. "This is a great, blue collar hockey town. That's where I am, too. I just love to come to work. I love to work hard. I wouldn't want it any other way. I wouldn't want something easy. It's the same way these fans want things. They appreciate the work you put in. This team plays hard, it's a high-character team, so I think it resembles the city a little bit, which is nice."
If it seems like Gerbe is in the right spot, it's true in more ways than one. The hockey world is small, but it's helpful that he has long-term relationships with both Tortorella and CBJ captain Nick Foligno, playing with the latter as part of the U.S. National Team Development Program when the two were 17 and 18 years old.
A native of Oxford, Mich., north of Detroit, Gerbe isn't too far from his father, who continues to battle health issues. And his wife and three kids, all age 4 or under, aren't too far up the road in Cleveland and have made it to a few games in Nationwide Arena since his recall.
Time will tell how much longer he will wear union blue rather than Monsters colors, and that's fine to Gerbe. When he was recalled his plan was to take it a game at a time, and suddenly one game became nearly 20 for someone who hadn't been an NHL regular in four seasons.
He takes it day-by-day, preferring to focus on what he can control rather than think about the big picture. But a year after his hockey future was in doubt, he knows he has two more seasons to play in the Columbus organization.
"I think I'm very, very grateful to just further my career two more years," he said of signing his new contract. "I love playing the game, and just to get a chance to do it for two more years is very special to me. I'm very thankful and grateful to the organization for believing in me."