STOCKHOLM – Swiss national team goalie Martin Gerber is in the centre of attention at the NHL’s Ottawa Senators but the Sens’ number-one keeper didn’t have a smooth start.
Gerber’s resume brings the hockey version of the Cindarella story close to perfection. And at 34, he’s on the top of his career which began quite late.
Gerber never played hockey as a little kid. When he was 12, some classmates took him to a practice for school kids at SC Langnau because they were not enough. He enjoyed hockey as a skater and one year later he transformed himself to a goalie of Langnau’s junior teams. “They didn’t have enough goalies, so I jumped in,” Gerber says. It might be one of his wisest decisions and the beginning of an unusual rags-to-riches career.
As a teenager, Gerber was overlooked by both NHL and Swiss scouts. He never played for a junior national team and he didn’t succeed in doing the jump from Langnau’s juniors to their pro team and played for the neighbourhood team Signau, a fourth-tier team, and Thun of the third-highest league.
When Gerber was 22, Simon Schenk, a former Swiss national team coach, discovered Gerber’s potential and he could finally join the big guys, who were playing in the National League B that time. He became the number-one goalie and in his second season, in 1998, the team surprisingly achieved promotion to the highest Swiss league, the NLA.
“Everything was a little bit different at me than at the others,” Gerber says. “Because I started so late, I needed some more time.”
Gerber was one of the main reasons why Langnau wasn’t humiliated in the first NLA years and could build up its organization. They’re still there, were never relegated but they’ve also never been qualified for the playoffs in ten years.
In 2000, Gerber played his first of five IIHF World Championships. His biggest success with the national team was the sixth place in the 2006 Olympics when he led Switzerland to a 2-0 victory over a Team Canada full of NHL stars with 49 saves.
Also his club career stepped up quickly. In 2002 he finished his first season in the Swedish Elitserien as champion with Färjestad Karlstad and as best goalkeeper of the league. It got him a one-way deal with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks the same year as a backup to Jean-Sébastien Giguère. 2005 he got his first number-one job at the Carolina Hurricanes and is now in his third season with Ottawa.
His time in the capital of Canada was one with ups and downs. In his first year, he lost the number-one position to the then-unknown Ray Emery. Last season, he came back, also because of a good work ethic, something Emery lacked, making him jobless in the NHL.
Gerber’s comeback as Ottawa’s number one was headlined as a strike back and Gerber nicknamed “Darth Gerber” as his completely black goalie mask resembled to the Star Wars antagonist Darth Vader.
Even though the nickname doesn’t really fit his character. Despite his $11.1-million, three-year contract, which expires next summer, he’s still the gentle and calm guy from the Swiss Emmen valley.
Now as the Senators bought out the contract of Emery, who’s playing for the KHL’s Atlant Mytishchi, the Ottawa goalie tandem is built on Gerber and Alex Auld, who has been an NHL backup for a long time.
Gerber started the season as a starter but still has to fight for this status. Also with a less dark mask this year, which still seems to be inspired by Darth Vader. “Martin Gerber had a good camp. He’s a good athlete and very quick,” Ottawa’s head coach Craig Hartsburg, who was acquired after two consecutive gold medals at the IIHF World U20 Championship, justified his widely expected choice.
Gerber liked to come back to Sweden, where he played for one year, for the season opener. “I enjoyed being here again and one could see how beautiful it is here. Many people I know from Sweden and Switzerland came to Stockholm, unfortunately I didn’t have much time,” Gerber said.
Before the game, he expected a high-class and fast game. “Pittsburgh is one of the favourites in the Eastern Conference. They have some high-calibre skaters,” Gerber said. Facing shots from players like Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and Miroslav Satan, Gerber was in the centre of attention in the Globen Arena.
His first game of the season, kind of a revenge for the lost conference quarterfinals, didn’t end smoothly. The Senators lost 4-3 in overtime to the Penguins and Gerber didn’t make a good impression in part of the goals against him. “I just have to look forward now and improve that it doesn’t happen again,” Gerber said in his usual calmness.
His teammate Auld got the much-better critics after the first weekend and Ottawa’s 3-1 win in game two in Stockholm. The fight for the starting position is open.Notebook:
- Alex Auld almost had a shutout in his first game for Ottawa. Exactly one second before the final buzzer, Alex Goligoski scored the lone Penguins goal in game two of the Stockholm clashes. It was his first goal in his fourth-ever NHL game.
- Dany Heatley was Ottawa’s hero with three goals on the weekend while Pittsburgh counted on their star centres Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin, whose lines shared about 80 percent of the ice time.
- After winning the Victoria Cup, the New York Rangers had a perfect weekend in Prague with two, 2-1 victories over the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite scores looking narrow, the Rangers shot out the Lightning41-21 and 39-19.
- All four NHL games in Europe were sold out. 17,085 were in Prague’s O2 Arena each game, 13,699 at Globen, Stockholm.
- St. Louis’ Andy McDonald was the top pre-season scorer with 13 points (4+9) in five games. His teammate Lee Stempniak had 12 and Corey Perry was the best goal scorer with six goals.
MARTIN MERKPittsburgh’s Russian star Evgeny Malkin scores the 2-1 goal against Martin Gerber. Photo: Christian Häusler