“Without the goaltender, you don't have diddly,” Art Berglund, former USA Hockey director, and an IIHF Hall of Famer has said.
It’s especially obvious when it comes to teams like Rögle in Sweden that got promoted to Elitserien this year. For a newcomer, a team whose core is still built on players they had last year, a good goalie is crucial. A good goalie will help the team get the important points from the get-go.
Enter Martin Gerber.
Not only is Gerber a great goalie, he’s also a veteran presence in the locker room, and he knows what it’s like to play on a team that’s been promoted to a higher league. He’s been there, done that, a few times.
“I was in the same position with Langnau in Switzerland,” he told IIHF.com.
Gerber played two full seasons with Langnau before the team got promoted to the Swiss National League A in 1998. While the team managed to stay up, they also ended up playing for their spot in each of Gerber’s next three seasons with the team.
“We were really bad, we weren’t good even on paper. In Switzerland, everybody gets signed by April, and after that, it’s difficult to build a team for the new season,” he says.
“I even had the same experience, playing for a low-ranked team, in the NHL when I was with Anaheim,” he adds.
In 2002, Gerber did win the Swedish championship with Färjestad, a club he returned to in 2004, during the NHL lockout.
Since then, Gerber spent five years in the NHL, and one in the KHL, before returning to Sweden. Last season, he played for Växjö Lakers, another team that had just been promoted to Elitserien.
“Last year, I almost wasn’t going to do it, but then the team looked pretty good. I didn’t know many of the guys, but it seemed like a good challenge, especially when everybody said that we’d be a bad team. I knew the guys were good,” he says.
Gerber was right, and whoever said Växjö would struggle was wrong. Lakers finished ninth in the Elitserien standings, just two points out of the playoffs. Gerber posted the league’s fourth-best save percentage (92.81), and four shutouts in 42 games.
In the past, Gerber has stayed a free agent until July, waiting to see how the goalie market develops in the NHL and the KHL, but this year, he was an early bird.
“I’ve never made a decision that early, but Rögle really wanted me and pushed for it. They promised that they’d bring in more guys and since I like it in Sweden, I thought, why not be one of the first guys for a change. I usually go by gut feeling anyway and that’s worked so far,” he says with a smile.
Rögle management did keep their promise to Gerber, and they have added key players onto the team, like Finnish defenseman Lasse Kukkonen who left Magnitogorsk, forward Mathias Tjärnqvist from Djurgården that got relegated, and Gerber’s teammate from last year, Mike Iggulden from Växjö.
Even though Rögle’s 33-year-old coach Dan Tangnes says that the team will first make the playoffs, and “then anything is possible”, Rögle is expected to having to focus on fighting for its spot in Elitserien.
“There’s a lot of pressure. It’s fun, but it’s really tough, too, because, as a newcomer, we can’t afford a bad day. We need all the points we can get,” says Gerber.
“The idea of being relegated is stressful. But even this year, we try to make the playoffs like all the other teams, and anything can happen there. It’s not going to be easy, though,” he adds.
When he first played on a newcomer team in Switzerland, Gerber was one of the young players on the team. Now he’s the 38-year-old veteran expected to lead the team.
“I try to lead by example, the way I prepare for games and practices. One or two players might learn something. I try to create a relaxed atmosphere, and spread some confidence in the dressing room. That’s what the young guys need, they need to know we can beat any team in the league,” he says.
“It’s a fun job. It’s not just about putting in the hours. We’re building something and hope that by the end of the day, it’s good. Rögle has a lot of potential, and there’s hope,” he adds.
Elitserien kicks off on Thursday. Rögle’s first chance to grab important points comes in their home game against Luleå.
Gerber is ready.