Nathan Gerbe isn’t cleared for heavy contact and figures to start the NHL season on injured reserve. But he was skating with his teammates for the opening of training camp Sunday in First Niagara Center, a huge victory for the Buffalo Sabres winger after a rough summer.
After taking a hit from behind into the boards in December 2011 from Philadelphia’s Marc-Andre Bourdon, the short-term impact for the 5-foot-5 Gerbe was a concussion. As it turns out, things got much worse.
Gerbe dealt with neck and back issues that never improved, and it was discovered he had disc damage in his back. He had surgery July 24 — the day he turned 25 — and it was done by Dr. Andrew Cappuccino, the orthopedic surgeon who treated former Bills tight end Kevin Everett for his catastrophic spine injury suffered in 2007.
“That was a good birthday,” Gerbe joked.
This, of course, was no joke. It was a discectomy, removal of material pressing on the spinal cord. Gerbe also needed repair on a separate herniated disc.
“Very scary,” he said. “That was the first time I’ve ever had surgery. First surgery I’ve ever had was on my spine, so I was pretty nervous about it. You don’t know how you’re body is going to be. Everyone involved has done a great job keeping me intact and pushing me along. When you’re messing around with your spine and nerves, anything can go wrong.”
“It was very intricate when you look at what he’s did, what he’s gone through and the process of trying to come back,” said coach Lindy Ruff. “It hasn’t been easy for him, but he’s getting close. He doesn’t think he’s that far away.”
Gerbe had just six goals in 62 games last year, a 10-goal drop from the year before. He was paid through the lockout because he was injured and skated on his own or with the assistant coaches.
“This week will be a good indicator for me. To be with other players was great but a big change for me,” Gerbe said. “I need to be comfortable and confident that I can turn and I can go hit guys. It’s hard to say that now. I just got to see how the week goes and how my body reacts.
“I love contact. I’ll get there. I feel I can start that now, but I have to be cautious before I go run a big guy.”
The only other injury for the Sabres entering camp is a lingering finger problem for forward Cody McCormick. He hurt it during a fight last season.
“They thought it would settle down on its own, and I think we just needed a little more treatment,” said McCormick, who skated alongside Matt Ellis and newcomer John Scott. “It was the first time I was able to go out and do battle drills and that with the guys. We’ll talk to the trainer and see how things go from here. Maybe worst-case scenario is a surgery, but we’re going to see what we can do before that.”
T.J. Brennan thanked adrenaline for carrying him through his first day in Buffalo.
The defenseman has rejoined the Sabres after a stellar season with the Rochester Americans, which included a game Saturday night in Syracuse. Following the contest, he bused to Rochester and arrived after 1 a.m. He was back on the road and headed for Buffalo less than four hours later.
“I’ll get a good nap in now, that’s for sure,” Brennan said after practice.
He leads the Amerks with 14 goals and 35 points in 36 games, but he will need to clear waivers if the Sabres want to return him to the minor leagues.
The Sabres on Sunday waived goaltender David Leggio and defensemen Joe Finley and Drew Schiestel for the purpose of keeping them in Rochester.
Brennan hopes he’s shown enough to stay in Buffalo, and he’s thrilled to have had success in the AHL while it was filled with NHL-caliber players because of the lockout.
“The individual skill definitely increased,” Brennan said. “It was a really high skilled league. … Cody [Hodgson] goes from down there doing well and is the first-line guy here. It shows you how skilled guys were down there. You have to give a lot of credit to the AHL for this year for the development going on.”
Practice was not open to the public Sunday, but fans are invited the rest of the week, starting with a scrimmage today at 5:30 p.m.
Admission is free, as is parking in the arena ramp. Concessions will be available at family-friendly prices.
Ruff said several players will be brought up from Rochester for the scrimmage only. Because of the shortened camp, Hodgson, Brennan and Marcus Foligno are the only players up from Rochester.
“We’ll fill the lineup and have three lines on each team so that we’ll have a real good scrimmage and try to keep the pace up,” Ruff said. “I don’t want to have four lines because it doesn’t serve the purpose for the conditioning end and the scrimmage at the same time.”
Practice the rest of the week will run from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
The Los Angeles Kings traded tough guy Kevin Westgarth to Carolina on Sunday, raising some eyebrows around the league.
The Princeton-educated Westgarth was a key negotiator during the lockout for the NHL Players’ Association, and several union reps were traded during the last shortened season in 1995.
This, however, looks legitimate. Westgarth lives in Raleigh and is married to the daughter of former Pittsburgh Steelers coach Bill Cowher. The Hurricanes needed toughness, and the Kings had a surplus of forwards.
“I thought Kevin handled himself very well. He was always respectful,” said Sabres goalie Ryan Miller, who spent several days as an NHLPA negotiator in December. “Anyone involved in the process has to understand what’s involved. If there’s repercussions because of that, it would be the most unprofessional thing I’ve heard of. I don’t think that’s going to happen in this league.”