When the reports about the scary crease collision in Moscow first surfaced last season, former Ottawa Senators goaltender Martin Gerber was originally said to have suffered a broken neck.
Then playing for Mytishchi Atlant of the Kontinental Hockey League, Gerber was in a fog for weeks, lost behind a language barrier in a Moscow hospital. Eventually, he turned to the Internet to figure out what was wrong.
“It was a contusion and a couple of bones were broken off the spine, off the vertabrae,” Gerber recounted Monday, only hours before making an unlikely start for the Edmonton Oilers against the Senators at Scotiabank Place. “And it took out (some feeling) in my right arm, that was the hard thing. Some (feeling) was not there. It took awhile, a long time to recover.”
Getting from there to here qualifies as one of the most unlikely stories of the young NHL season.
Gerber, 36, went home to Switzerland, rehabilitating in more comfortable surroundings. He rebounded well enough to represent the Swiss at the world championships last April. After the ordeal, he says, “you definitely appreciate things way more after that. You kind of take things for granted, that you have a good life. Things seem to be easy and then you have to start at the bottom.”
Rather than accepting a European offer, Gerber instead opted for a two-way contract offer from the Oilers: paying him $500,000 if he made the big-league team and $200,000 if he was sent to the Oklahoma City Barons of the American Hockey League. Gerber knew it was “a longshot” to return to the NHL, but rationalized “you can only play for so long”.
After posting a 9-4-2 record, 2.56 goals against average and .911 save percentage with Oklahoma City – including seven straight wins – Gerber made it back to the big leagues when Nikolai Khabibulin suffered a groin injury last week. In his first Oilers start last Thursday, Gerber stopped 35 of 37 shots, earning Edmonton a 3-2 win over the Colorado Avalanche.
“It’s a quick game, things can change fast and I knew when I signed here it was probably going to be like that, waiting for an opening or a break,” he said.
The fact he’s earning a start at Scotiabank Place is another huge victory of sorts, considering he never lived up to his lofty billing when he originally signed a three-year, $11.1 million contract with the Senators before the 2006-07 season. During 2008-09, he went 4-9-1 with a 2.86 goals against average and .899 save percentage, was roasted by Senators fans and eventually assigned to Binghamton of the American Hockey League. He finished out the season with the Toronto Maple Leafs after being claimed off waivers.
“It seemed I had a hard time just blocking things out,” said Gerber, who was well liked by his former Senators teammates. “I let things get to me a little too much and once you’re there, it’s tough to find your way out. It was definitely good to have a break here and come back with a clean slate.”