Sunday afternoon, all Nathan Gerbe was thinking about was spending some time with his family.
After the Cleveland Monsters' seven-hour bus ride from Rockford, Ill., back to northeast Ohio arrived in the early-morning hours Sunday, Gerbe got in his car and drove to his native Michigan. His father has been in the hospital of late, so the 32-year-old forward wanted to spend some time with him.
Then his phone rang.
It was Blue Jackets assistant general manager Bill Zito with the good news that Gerbe was needed with Columbus. For the first time since February, 2018, Gerbe would be back in the NHL, where he played 396 games from 2009-18.
So it was quickly back to Cleveland via car to get his gear -- another seven hours of driving in all on the day -- before taking a flight to Long Island and arriving near midnight.
It was all worth it, though, when Gerbe pounced on a loose puck in the second period of Monday night's game vs. the Islanders and quickly backhanded a shot over the blocker of Thomas Greiss and into the net. It was the 59th goal of Gerbe's NHL career but the first since March 10, 2016, and his mind immediately went to his father.
"I'm sure he's happy," Gerbe said postgame. "I thought of him right away."
Video: CBJ@NYI: Gerbe roofs backhander after turnover
The goal highlighted an impressive performance for a veteran who is serving as not just the Monsters captain but leads the team in points on the season. Playing on a line with old U.S. Under-17 and U-18 teammate Nick Foligno and Alexander Wennberg, Gerbe led the Blue Jackets with five shots on goal and was a key part of the 3-2 victory that extended the CBJ's point streak to eight and win streak to five.
"It means a lot," he said with a smile postgame. "Tonight was more than just a game for me. Playing on a line with Foligno and Wennberg, those are two real good players, so for myself, I just wanted to play my game and help those guys out."
It was a much-deserved moment for a player who just can't stop. He started his career as an NHL regular from 2011 to '16 with both Buffalo and Carolina, twice scoring 16 goals in a season. After a two-year stint in Switzerland, Gerbe returned to join the Columbus organization, and he has turned into a veteran leader at the AHL level. A year ago, he was the Monsters' representative at the league's All-Star Game thanks to 32 points in 41 games, but injuries ended his season early as he needed an operation on his hip as well as double hernia surgery.
For someone not guaranteed a chance to play at the NHL level, it took a lot of work to get back, but the passion never waned even if he wasn't sure how his body would hold up.
"It's human nature," he said of wondering if his time on the ice was nearing an end. "You're always going to have that in the back of your head going through surgeries and injuries, but I had full confidence in the work I put in outside of the rink to come back and be able to play, so it's been real fun to do that."
His ability to fill up the score sheet - he had an 8-17-25 line in 30 games with the Monsters to start the season - has proved he's back, but he wasn't the first player to get the call up to Columbus given the rash of injuries that have hit the team.
Head coach John Tortorella was happy to see Gerbe get the call when he did, though.
"Gerbs always brings energy," Tortorella said. "He's just a good pro. He's a really good guy for our team when we can call him up, but when he's down there I think he's teaching some of the young guys down there what it means to be a pro. And he can skate. Gerbs, he'll be able to skate when he's 55 (years old). He's just a bundle of energy that way, so that's a good call-up for us."
Gerbe has proved to be a key part of the organization on and off the ice since arriving, and he admits he takes pride in his leadership. While it meant a lot to finally get the return call to the NHL, no matter how the rest of this year goes, he'll fill whatever role he can for the Blue Jackets or Monsters.
"I try to help out where I can," he said. "If I see where I can help out guys, maybe if they're struggling, pushing them to work a little bit harder to reach their goal. For me, I enjoy that. I enjoy pushing people to become better, not only on the ice but off the ice.
"I guess you do grow into that a little bit, but I've always enjoyed trying to help people and push them to realize their potential."