LANGNAU, Switzerland – After six years and 236 games, Switzerland’s most experienced NHL player left North America and signed a one-year contract in the Russian KHL. Martin Gerber announced his transfer on Wednesday at a meeting with journalists in Langnau where his hockey career started.
Gerber’s move brings a transfer circle in the goalkeeper market to a close. The Swiss player got his first NHL contract in Anaheim after he led Sweden’s Färjestad Karlstad to title. Now, another championship goalie from Färjestad took Gerber’s place in Toronto: Swede Jonas Gustavsson.
In an odd twist, Gerber follows Ray Emery at Mytishchi, who lost the starting job to Gerber in Ottawa one year ago. Emery had a great season with Mytishchi, earning him a contract with the Philadelphia Flyers for the upcoming year.
Gerber’s career reads like a fairy tale. He started playing hockey as skater at 12, and moved into net at 13. “They didn’t have enough goalies, so I jumped in,” Gerber said. It was the beginning of a rags-to-riches career.
The 34-year-old was overlooked as a junior by his native club Langnau, and by Swiss and NHL scouts. He was sent to play for Signau, a fourth-tier amateur team in Switzerland.
At age 20, he finally debuted with Langnau in the Swiss B League and got the team promoted to the top league 1998. He played his first World Championship in 2000 despite not playing in a single playoff game. After the successful year in Sweden, he got an NHL contract.
Gerber was Jean-Sébastien Giguère’s backup in Anaheim for two years, but became the Carolina Hurricane’s starter after the lockout and won the Stanley Cup there.
But his best single-game performance came against Canada at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games, a team they had not beat at the Olympics or World Championships since the first game in 1924. Canada-born Paul DiPietro scored two goals for the Swiss while Martin Gerber had a shutout with 49 saves. The Olympics ended with a sixth-place finish, but it was a historic tournament for the Swiss and Gerber.
His heroic performances also earned him a three-year, $11.1m deal with Ottawa as Dominik Hasek’s successor, which made him one of the best-paid Swiss athletes and one of the best-paid hockey goalies.
Gerber had ups and downs in his three years in the Canadian capital. In 2009, they sent him to the AHL affiliate before he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs in March.
Gerber didn’t find a job as a number-one goalie refusing an offer to be Marc-André Fleury’s backup in Pittsburgh. “At my age, it is more important for me to play a full season and to have a number-one job,” Gerber said. “It would have been different in Toronto where I could have battled for the number-one job. However, it’s normal that they sign a top goalie who is ten years younger than me if they can get him. Since then I knew that I had to look for other opportunities. Many clubs are close to the salary cap and they rather give young goalies with two-way contracts a chance.”
Gerber becomes the fourth Swiss player and the third Swiss netminder to play in Russia after Paolo Della Bella (Metallurg Magnitogorsk), Pauli Jaks (Avangard Omsk) and Patrick Fischer (SKA St. Petersburg).
“I don’t know much more about the city than it’s written on Wikipedia,” Gerber said about his new team. “I always had in mind to play in Russia, I also had an offer from Kazan some years ago and now I told myself that time has come. If I want to do it, I’ll have to do it now. I wanted something new and I feel that it will be something good. The KHL is the best league after the NHL, they try to become a counterbalance. They invest much and they copied much from the NHL. They’re getting better year by year.”
Even though Gerber is ready to stay in Russia for more than a year, he also hopes to put himself in position for a number-one job in the NHL next year. Yet first he will join his new teammates at the training camp in Finland.
In August, he will return to Switzerland when Atlant holds a camp in Engelberg with three exhibition games against Swiss clubs.