The news that New Jersey’s never-to-be-forgotten hero, Pat Verbeek, is now the new general manager of the Anaheim Duck took a lot of Garden State hockey fans by surprise – if not downright astonishment.
As one fan told me, “How come the guy we (affectionately) called ‘The Little Ball Of Hate’ winds up sitting behind a desk, running a big league hockey team?”
Well, that’s a good question; but only if you didn’t know the Devils firebrand up close and personally; as I did.
Really, the essence of Verbeek’s ascent to managership is rooted in what some would call a never-say-die spirit. Others would point out that Patty was overcoming huge obstacles starting on that Verbeek farm in Forrest, Ontario and forever after.
I wonder how many Devils fans are – or even were – aware that Verbeek’s Devils career almost ended before it started. Patty was the franchise’s third-overall pick in the 1982 Draft. GM Billy MacMillen picked him after Rocky Trottier and Ken Daneyko.
Give MacMillen credit. After analyzing his three selections, GM Billy opined, “Verbeek could be the biggest surprise of them all. He’s hard-nosed but very mature.”
But just after the 1984-85 season, Pat’s career very nearly went kaput. While doing farm work, he had the thumb on his left hand severed by an auger.
Then, things got worse. His brother drove him to the hospital but ran out of gas. When they finally got to the infirmary, they didn’t have the thumb and had to phone their father – he was in Wyoming, Ontario at the time – to go back to the farm.
“Look for the thumb in the fertilizer bin,” was Pat’s instruction. Miraculously, the senior Verbeek found it; rushed to the hospital where a six-hour operation got the thumb back in place.
Naturally, through the trauma, Pat wondered about his future hockey but now Lady Luck was with him. He showed up at the Devils September 1985 training camp and began pumping goals as if nothing had happened during that awful summer day on the farm.
When reporters asked how he could maintain his scoring touch, Verbeek said it was simple enough.
Verbeek: “it really hasn’t bothered me. The only thing is I only have feeling down to the joint. I can’t feel the stick from the joint to the end of the thumb. I have to squeeze tight so the stick doesn’t ‘t fall out of my hand. That’s happened a couple of times. In a couple of years, reporters will forget the incident ever happened. “
But it did happen and I, for one, never forgot; mostly because, Pat not only overcame the operation, but his best hockey days were yet to come; including one of the longest careers in NHL history highlighted by a landmark game near the end of the 1987-88 season.
This was the campaign when Jim Schoenfeld replaced Doug Carpenter as New Jersey’s head coach and the homestretch featured a Devils surge in pursuit of the Rangers.
Until then, the Devils had never made the postseason. Now the Blueshirts were visiting The Meadowlands and a Devs win would lift them to only three points behind New York, still in fourth place and the final playoff berth.
“That’s when Verbeek showed his stuff,” remembered long time Devils fan Noam Kogen.
After Kirk Muller put Schony’s skaters ahead, Pat delivered his first goal of the game. His second was even better, coming on a penalty shot that beat goalie John Vanbiesbrouck.
“When the ref said I had the penalty shot my legs were shaking like I was standing in front of a class giving a speech,” Pat recalled.
His move was a deke to the left followed by a backhander that fooled The Beezer. And Verbeek’s goal proved to be the game-winner; as well as an inspiration. New Jersey next won two straight over Pittsburgh with Pat one of the club’s stars.
Meanwhile the race came down to the last Sunday of the season and the Devils’ final game at Chicago. If Schony’s troops could beat the Blackhawks, they would also beat New York out of the playoff berth.
Chicago led 2-1 late in the third period when Pat produced one of the most important goals of his life. On the power play, Verbeek knocked in the rebound of defenseman Craig Wolanin’s drive; and with only eight seconds left in the middle frame.
Chicago scored again but the Devis tied it and the 3-3 game went into overtime. To beat out the Rangers, a W was a must, and it came about when John MacLean beat Darren Pang at 2:21 of the extra session.
The Devils finally moved up with the elite and Verbeek became recognized by the critics. Writing in his definitive book, “Players“author Andrew Podnieks described Pat this way:
“He was antagonistic; not small but pitbull ferocious. He fought and battled and pushed and shoved his way forward.”
New Jersey upset the first place Islanders in the opening round and then topped Washington in an exceedingly rough series; Pat’s kind of hockey. “Our team likes rough games,” he asserted. “They seem to get us more involved; more excited; and we don’t get intimidated.”
They ousted Washington and, for the first time, a banner hung from the rafters: “1988 PATRICK DIVISION CHAMPIONS.”
Into the third round the Devils marched and this time they took Boston to Game 7 and one of the most unforgettable moments in team – and Verbeek – history.
Boston Garden was packed to its lofty rafters for the decisive rubber match. So far, the teams had been so even – up and down the line – that the press corps was divided as to the possible winner. One prevalent theory had it that the team which scored first would advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
This would be the perfect time for Verbeek to be the hero and, sure enough, the Devils controlled play off the opening face-off. Just three minutes had gone by when Kirk Muller skated around Bruins defenseman Michael Thelvin and fired the puck at Reggie Lemelin.
The goalie got his right pad on the drive but went to the ice and allowed the rebound to carom directly to Verbeek. Patty was camped directly where he wanted to be – in front of the gaping four-by-six net.
This was it. Or was it?
To everyone in the audience and the millions watching the game on network and local television, it looked like the Devils had a certain goal; especially because of the shooter. After all, Pat had led the Devils with 46 red lights over the season.
Verbeek had it all figured in the split second at his command. “Top shelf and it’s in!”
Ah, but there was one significant problem – the puck was coming to his stick with a slight but meaningful wobble. Patty hesitated, hoping that the rubber would become stabilized. To picture what followed here’s how it looked.
Lemelin was far to the right (his left) at the edge of the crease. Verbeek was on the open left (Lemelin’s right) with the puck standing on its end. Lemelin’s right hand, holding his stick, stretches back toward the emptiness of the middle of the net. Still, his move seemed hopeless.
As the capacity crowd gulped in anticipation, Pat fired at the unencumbered opening and the puck sped goalward. Verbeek was poised to raise his stick in triumph. New Jersey fans were about to come to their feet in a state of high glee.
Egad! The inevitable wasn’t. Lemelin chose at that moment to make the save of his career by lunging across the crease. “It was instinct that comes from years of experience,” he later would explain.
The Bruins goalie blocked the drive, deflecting the puck out of the air with his right arm. And if there was a better save, the Devils could not imagine it.
Verbeek stood transfixed in complete and utter disbelief. And more than 14,000 throats at Boston Garden disgorged a high-decibel roar. When it finally subsided, the score was still 0-0.
Covering the game – and himself a Beer League goalie – Daily News reporter Frank Brown said, “Lemelin had a thought. Look good early and your bench will be lifted.”
In the end, the reporter was right. The Bruins wound up winning the game and the series, thanks to Lemelin’s remarkable stop. While the valiant Verbeek could only think, “If only the puck wasn’t rolling; we’d win the game.”
Pat remained a Devil until he completed the 1988-89 season and then was traded to the Hartford Whalers. He will be remembered in Devils country as one of the finest forwards in club history.
In terms of the NHL annals, he’s remembered as the only big-leaguer who scored over 500 goals and had more than 2,500 penalty minutes.
For those of us who were there, we’ll recall Patty’s decisive goals that torpedoed the Rangers in that melodramatic homestretch run in the Spring of 1988.
And, much as it hurt at the time, we can’t erase the thought of what-might-have-been had the puck arrived flat on Verbeek’s stick with Reggie Lemelin helplessly out of position.
Now, as he sits back in his general manager’s chair in Anaheim, California, Pat Verbeek can look back at his illustrious career – the plus and the minus – and declare the inevitable, “That’s hockey!”
Those who encountered Pat over the years have fond memories. One of them is former Newsday sportswriter Joe Dionisio. He remembers Pat as one of his all-time favorite interviews:
Dionisio: “I was still new to the sports writing game and was assigned to do a magazine profile on Pat. He agreed but – keeping farmer’s hours, I guess – he phoned me pretty early in the morning. I must have done the interview in a daze but what I remember most was how patient and cooperative he was. It was a long interview and he never once tried to rush me. Hardly ‘The Little Ball Of Hate.’ More like ‘The Little Ball Of Sweetness.’ “
We who watched him from his rookie year as a Devil to his retirement as a player, no doubt share Joe Dionisio’s feelings, “Thank you very much, hockey warrior!”