Some clever prankster on the Portland Pirates didn't take very long to show rookie forward Nathan Gerbe
exactly where he stands -- which, as everyone who follows college hockey knows, is about 5-foot, 6-inches from the floor.
After one of the team's recent practices, someone left a pair of children's skates in Gerbe's locker. There's probably no height humor that Gerbe, 21, hasn't heard by this point of his career, but he summoned up the goodwill to chuckle a little more.
"I haven't found the guy who did it," Gerbe said. "I laugh at that stuff. It's something I've heard all my life. It's one of those things, I've learned it's better to not waste energy on."
Gerbe has enough of it for almost everything else, though, including living up to a reputation that precedes him as one of the most dynamic young players in the game.
Gerbe doesn't like to sit still in general, and he enters his career as a man on the move. He produced 3 goals and 2 assists in his first 4 games with the Pirates.
That follows a spring in which he stood as the largest figure on the college hockey scene, leading Boston College to the national title and earning the Most Outstanding Player award of the Frozen Four. He spit out 5 goals and 3 assists in those 2 games, and overall he tied the NCAA record for most goals in a tournament, 7.
Gerbe was a nice novelty story, for sure. But would his offensive magic translate to the pros, at his size? The very early answer is yes.
"I don't think I have to change my game," he said. "What got you here is what got you here. You have to be strong and prepared and ready for the challenges that will come."
A few years ago, that primarily came down to getting a few scraps at the dinner table. Growing up in Oxford, Mich., Gerbe was the youngest of 6 athletic children.
There was a backyard big enough to get in a little dry-land training in the form of soccer. In the winter, of course, everyone slid out to the frozen family pond for some shinny.
"You learn to be pretty competitive when you are the youngest. I never won. I always tried hard," Gerbe said. "I always worked on skating. I guess you could say that's where I learned to be fast."
Everyone else in opposing jerseys has more or less been Gerbe's pylon ever since. He paced the nation in scoring with 68 points in 43 games for the Eagles last season, and was named USA Hockey's national college player of the year.
He's a 1-man big top, amusing teammates who only have to try to check him in practice.
"He tries a lot of things in games that a lot of guys only try in practice," said Portland defenseman Chris Butler
, Gerbe's roommate. "He loves doing behind-the-back plays, spin and drag plays. He's very accurate and very successful with them, too. You smile and chuckle about it, and you're happy he's on your team."
and Tim Kennedy
have particularly wide smiles. Gerbe, also skilled as a middleman, is the left wing on a line with those two big-time threats.
"When you're playing with good players, the opportunities come. You just have to take advantage of it," Gerbe said. "Last year was a big step for me. I learned more about myself, what kind of player I have to be. I have to be a high-energy, skill player who brings it at both ends of the rink. Some nights you are just not feeling it, but you have to figure it out."
Gerbe, a Sabres' fifth-round pick in 2005, has had the right answers offensively for years now, but the jump in levels once again spotlights his physical challenges. Butler points out that underestimating Gerbe's wallop is a mistake. As a smaller player, Butler said, Gerbe gets leverage on his targets and leaves his mark.
"His center of gravity is a lot lower. He gets so low, he uses it to his advantage," Butler said. "He'll sneak right under you."
Portland coach Kevin Dineen
said it would be a mistake to focus on what Gerbe doesn't bring to the table at the expense of what he obviously does.
"We're in the entertainment business, and he's an entertaining player to watch," Dineen said. "He's a kid that carries himself well. He has a good disposition for the game. He's enthusiastic when he comes to the rink. That's what we look for in our game. You have to have some jump."
Lately, Gerbe has been looking for ways to dispense with his surplus of spark during down time. As you would imagine, he's not big on just hanging out. An unfamiliarity with his new surroundings has slowed his typical time-killers of spirited walking, shopping and general exploration.
"I feel like I have a lot of energy and don't run out. I work hard and it carries over," he said. "Right now, I don’t know what to do in Portland. Once I figure things out, I'll do some things. We played Maine here once. I don't know it too well. It seems like a nice city."
Just a short drive from his college home, Gerbe is lucky that he doesn't have to completely cut that chord. He returned for the Eagles' home opener this season, but that's as far back as he wants to flip the scrapbook. He said he hasn't once watched replays of the Frozen Four.
"A lot of people have goals in life. Now you have to let that go and focus on the next one," he said. "You never want to add any more pressure as a player. Then you get caught up in what you have to do instead of what you can. You try to keep looking ahead."
There's a lot of scoring on Gerbe's horizon, and maybe a trip to the NHL very soon. Some more humor at his expense seems rather predictable, too.
"It's a bunch of guys giving each other a hard time," said Butler, who denied any involvement in the tiny skates caper. "That's what we do, I guess."