By Bruce Berlet
The Hartford Courant
Hartford, Conn. – Athletes aren’t saviors. That’s for higher beings.
But Robert Gherson is a survivor of his first hockey experience and might have saved the Wolf Pack’s season in mid-November.
With No. 1 goalie Al Montoya injured and Chris Holt and Bernd Bruckler struggling, Gherson was summoned from Columbia of the ECHL and signed to a tryout contract Nov. 22.
Gherson, who won his AHL debut a week earlier on a tryout with Manitoba, had an auspicious opener for the Pack with 48 saves in a 7-2 victory over Albany Nov. 23. It was the first of six straight starts in which he went 4-0-1-1 with a 2.12 goals-against average while stopping 186 of 199 shots.
After Ty Conklin played twice on a conditioning assignment from Edmonton and Montoya started twice, Gherson has been 1-1-1, his first regulation defeat coming in a 4-3 loss at Syracuse Friday in which he admitted not playing well. But he’s still 5-1-1-2 with a team-leading 2.17 goals-against average GGA and .927 save percentage.
“When he came in was a tough time because the team was playing well and the goalies were having a hard time,” Pack coach Jim Schoenfeld said. “We were scoring five goals and still losing, and he made a dramatic difference, really solidified the position for us.”
Said Gherson: “I had a great opportunity and really had to make good on it because I didn’t know when another chance like this would come around. I knew what I had to do and just tried to give the team a chance to win.”
Gherson, 22, said it was a carryover from last season, when former Hartford Whalers tough guy Paul Gillis got him to work harder, focus better and become more consistent while he was going 24-12-7 with a 2.25 GAA and .925 save percentage with Quad City of the UHL. Gillis is now with the Danbury Trashers and was named a coach for the UHL All-Star Classic Jan. 25.
“I’d always had trouble with consistency in juniors (one winning season in four), never really played up to my potential or realized what I had to do until just before playoffs the last year,” Gherson said. “It was a big eye-opener for me, and I really realized that if I wanted to keep doing hockey I had to work harder in practice and be focused every game.
“Last year Gillie really stressed to me the importance of battling. I was the backup at the start, but he trusted in me and pretty much gave me the ball the second half. I played almost every game when it really mattered because we were pretty much in a playoff race after starting bad. It showed me that when you get a chance, you have to make good on it.”
After being named to the UHL All-Rookie team, Gherson was invited to the New York Rangers’ prospects camp in August. He didn’t fare well but excelled at the Rangers training camp and was invited to Wolf Pack camp, where he got played in one exhibition game, teaming with Bruckler in on in an 8-0 victory over Providence.
But instead of signing an AHL contract, Gherson went to the ECHL as a free agent. After a 4-1 start with Columbia and winning the game with Manitoba, Gherson hopes his agent can work out an AHL deal before his 25-game tryout contract ends Jan. 20.
“I just want to get it done and concentrate on things on the ice,” he said.
It would be a major step for Gherson, whose hockey career got off to a shaky start. His parents, from England and Scotland, moved to Toronto in 1981, two years before Robert was born, but knew little about hockey.
“They started me in figure skates, and the first game I played, my mom put them on the wrong feet,” a grinning Gherson said. “The ref pulled me over to the bench and told me, ‘Put your skates on the right feet before you get on the ice.’ ”