By Bruce Berlet
Talk about a delayed reaction.
In fact, it took 10 days before Pat Verbeek even knew he had been traded from the New Jersey Devils, who had drafted him in the third round in 1982, to the Hartford Whalers for Sylvain Turgeon.
The deal took place on June 17, 1989, but Verbeek was on a fishing trip with his father, Gerry, and six relatives and friends in a remote section of Ontario, Canada, and incommunicado until he returned home.
“We flew in the last 100 miles and didn’t have any phones,” Verbeek recalled of a trip to an outpost 500 miles north of Sault Ste. Marie. “It was well before the age of cell phones, but now we take satellite phones with us. I heard some things (about a trade) when I got back, and when I called home, my mother said it had happened and I went, ‘Wow.’ ”
Though Verbeek didn’t know about the trade for more than a week, it didn’t stop New York Post writer Hugh Delano from making up innocuous quotes from the former Devils wing.
“I said, ‘Hugh, how can you quote me? Nobody knew where I was. Nobody got a hold of me and here you are putting quotes from me in a story,’ ” Verbeek said with a chuckle. “I was disappointed but not surprised.”
Yes, Verbeek was indeed traded, starting a noteworthy and interesting 51/2 seasons with the Whalers that included a contract holdout, an incident in a Buffalo bar that helped shape his life and playing with future Hall of Famer Ron Francis, the most decorated player in franchise history. It all helped lead to Verbeek and six others becoming the newest inductees into the Connecticut Hockey Hall of Fame on March 10 at 7:00 p.m. at the XL Center before the Connecticut Whale host the Norfolk Admirals at 7.
“It’s a pretty cool thing and very humbling,” said Verbeek, 47, who is already in the Lambton County Hall of Fame in Sarnia, Ontario. “You never imagine stuff like this happening. I didn’t set out for that to happen. When you’re a kid, you want to achieve your goal of being in the NHL, and I achieved my goal. Then you just try to play as well as you can and see what happens. Obviously a lot of good things happened, and now I’m getting this extreme honor.”
But Verbeek, who is in his second year with the Tampa Bay Lightning as assistant general manager to NHL Hall of Famer and former Detroit Red Wings teammate Steve Yzerman, nearly never got a chance to play for the Whalers after a bizarre farming accident almost cost him the top half of his left thumb. On May 15, 1985, while working on a corn-planting machine (auger) on his 200-acre farm near Forest, Ontario, Verbeek had his thumb cut off between the knuckles, and three fingers on his left hand were severely lacerated. The accident occurred as Verbeek reached into a fertilizer bin to prevent a piece of paper from getting into the system and possibly damaging equipment.
While trying to make the “save,” Verbeek slipped into the machinery, and his left hand went into the moving auger, which sliced off his thumb and cut into his fingers. The injury threatened his career, but Verbeek’s brother, Brian, immediately loaded Pat into his truck and rushed him 20 miles to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Sarnia, Ontario.
Unfortunately, they didn’t bring the severed portion of Verbeek’s thumb, so when they reached the hospital, Brian phoned home and told his father to go to Pat’s farm and look for the thumb in one of four fertilizer bins. Gerry quickly found the thumb, and it was transported to the hospital, where doctors surgically re-attached it. The microsurgery took 61/2 hours and saved Pat’s career.
After the operation, Verbeek went to University Hospital in London, Ontario, where he had physical therapy to regain use of the hand. By August, he was able to lift weights and made it through Devils training camp without a problem.
“I had to get through the first three days after the reattachment,” Verbeek said. “I knew once I got past that that my thumb would be able to stay on and I’d have some sort of career, but I had no idea how good it was going to be. The thumb still works, but I can’t bend the second knuckle to be able to grip a hockey stick really well, so that was a bit of a concern. But it ended up being no worse than a broken thumb, so after about six weeks, I was ready to go, and things turned out all right.
“I’ve never looked back on what could have been. I think I was more happy and blessed and thankful that I was able to proceed and have a career.”
At 5 feet 9, 195 pounds, Verbeek was a stocky sparkplug who never allowed his lack of size effect his play. He was one of the most ornery and grittiest players ever, a kamikaze hitter who played on the edge and rightfully earned the nickname “The Little Ball of Hate.”
Verbeek started his climb to the highest level on a backyard rink at 21/2 years old with his father and then played on a “house team” at 5 in his native Wyoming, Ontario. He also played baseball and soccer but focused mainly on hockey, advancing through the Wyoming youth leagues before starting “serious” hockey at 15. He played with Sudbury in the OHL in 1981 and was drafted by the Devils, formerly the Colorado Rockies, in the third round in 1982 after getting 37 goals, 51 assists and 180 penalty minutes in 66 games. In his second OHL season, 1982-83, Verbeek was named the league’s hardest-working player in a poll of league coaches while increasing his totals to 40 goals, 67 assists and 184 PIM in 61 games.
Verbeek made his NHL debut at the end of the season against the New York Rangers on March 21, 1983. He had three goals, two assists and eight PIM in six games with the Devils and then had his first of 13 seasons with at least 20 goals in his first of six campaigns with the Devils, earning the Fan Club Rookie of the Year Award. He helped the Devils to their first playoff berth in the 1987-88 season with a team-record 46 goals and then had four goals and eight assists as the team reached the Wales Conference finals before losing to the Bruins.
After one more season playing a few miles south of the George Washington Bridge, Verbeek was traded to Whalers. After the initial shock of the deal wore off, Verbeek scored 44 and 43 goals in his first two seasons on Asylum Street and added five more in two playoff series as the team made the postseason in his first three years in Hartford.
“Coming from New Jersey, the fun part and neat thing was being part of a team that was winning,” said Verbeek, the Whalers’ scoring leader (89 points) in his first season. “We had a lot of great players like Ron Francis, Kevin Dineen and Ulf Samuelsson who were real competitors and a tough team to play against because we were gritty and competed hard every night. That made games lots of fun and interesting, especially in Boston Garden. The rivalry with Boston was a lot of fun. We didn’t come on top of it all the time, but it was lot of fun to play in those games because they were exciting and the fans made it kind of interesting in the stands.
“But the problem was trying to get out of our division. Boston, Montreal and Buffalo were strong as well, and that’s what made it so frustrating. I thought we had a team that could play with anybody in the NHL, but it was a bummer just trying to get out of our division.”
Verbeek was the only NHL player to lead his team in goals and penalty minutes in 1989-90 and 1990-91, and a major plus was playing with Francis, who is second all-time in the NHL in assists (1,249) to Wayne Gretzky (1,963) and fourth in points (1,798) behind Gretzky (2,857), Mark Messier (1,887) and Gordie Howe (1,850).
“Ronnie was a helluva playmaker, big and strong, could see the ice real well and had the skill to make the plays,” Verbeek said. “It was really fun.”
But after being named an All-Star for the first time and team MVP in his second season in Hartford, Verbeek and John Cullen, who had been part of a blockbuster trade with the Pittsburgh Penguins that included Francis and Samuelesson, held out in contract disputes. Verbeek, who made $270,000 in the 1990-91 season, missed the 1991 preseason and the first three games of the season. He was entering his option year in 1991-92, and the Whalers were looking to renegotiate the final season as part of a new, long-term contract. The Whalers offered Verbeek and his agent, Ron Salcer, a four-year, $2.4 million deal that was the biggest contract proposal in franchise history but wasn’t enough for Verbeek.
Unhappy with negotiations, Verbeek fired Salcer and went to Team Canada’s training camp for the Canada Cup without a new agent. But he was among the first players cut, hired a new agent, Tony Abbatine, and turned his attention back to the Whalers, reporting to training camp without a new contract in September. Verbeek and Abbatine asked for contracts worth an average of $1.3 million and negotiations continued in training camp, but Verbeek remained unhappy with the Whalers’ offer and threatened to leave. On Sept. 10, the Whalers were willing to increase their offer to $700,000 per year but said that was their final offer. Three days later, Verbeek delivered on his threat, left the team at Abbatine’s urging and went home to Wyoming, Ont.
Because Verbeek left the team while still under contract for a year, he was fined daily and cost himself a chance to be named captain for the 1991-92 season. Whalers general manager Eddie Johnston laughed at Abbatine's demands, saying Verbeek would never be paid that much. Abbatine had never dealt with NHL players prior to Verbeek, and his main negotiating experience was in the much higher-paying sport of baseball. Abbatine ultimately decided to let Verbeek's case go to an NHL arbitrator because he believed he could argue successfully for his client. But Verbeek grew tired of waiting for the arbitration hearing, and on Oct. 12, he decided he wanted to return regardless of what Abbatine said.
Verbeek opted to play out the final year of his contract as he waited for arbitration to run its course. Although some Hartford fans booed Verbeek when he finally returned, things got even worse when the team decided not to renew his alternate captain status. Verbeek's arbitration hearing was finally held in Toronto on Dec. 11, 1991, and Abbatine's strategy ultimately prevailed in bringing the Whalers above their $700,000 ceiling. NHL arbitrator Monte Harris needed more than two months to reach his final decision on Feb. 14, 1992, when he ruled Verbeek would get a two-year contract worth $820,000 per season. It was the largest arbitration award given to a player on a U.S.-based NHL team, but Verbeek's contract did not make him the team's highest player. That honor belonged to Cullen, who was earning $900,000 in 1991-92 as a result of a four-year deal he and Salcer negotiated in early October 1991. Verbeek ended up waiting until his contract was renegotiated in October 1992 to finally become the team's highest-paid player and was named captain.
“I didn’t have any leverage other than withhold my services,” said Verbeek, who was the Whalers representative to the NHL Players Association in the latter years with the team. “I wanted to stay in Hartford and didn’t want to hold out or think I was going to be traded, but sometimes you have to do things to persuade the two parties to come together.”
Verbeek had a bit of an offseason in 1991-92, getting 22 goals, 35 assists and 243 PIM in 76 games, but he played in all 84 games the next two seasons and had 39 and 37 games along with 81 assists. He also was part of another memorable bit of Whalers history on April 1, 1994, and it was no April Fool’s Day joke. He was fined $500 by the team for his role in a March 25 fight outside a Buffalo nightclub. It also included teammates Geoff Sanderson, Chris Pronger, Mark Janssens, Marc Potvin, Todd Harkins and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy, who all got into a dispute with bouncers at the Network nightclub owned by Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly. The bouncers accused the Whalers players of instigating the fight, but an NHL review cleared them. Nevertheless, the players were charged with trespassing, to which they pleaded guilty.
The Whalers initially suspended all the players but reduced their penalty to $500 fines, which were donated to charity, after the NHL deemed they were not at fault for the fight. But the Whalers did suspend McCarthy and assistant coach Paul Gillis two games for allowing the 19-year-old Pronger to enter the nightclub even though they knew he was underage. The fight took place after 3 a.m. on a Saturday, but the players insisted they had not started the fight or thrown punches at the bouncers.
“That was pretty interesting, and I think everybody at one time should have to go through that,” Verbeek said. “I think that anyone who’s kind of teetering on the verge of being bad or being good should kind of skate on the side of being good. We didn’t enjoy it at the time because it was actually kind of embarrassing for our families, but in retrospect, there were a lot of things that were funny and gave us a few chuckles, even years later.
“It was a unique experience to spend one night in jail. I didn’t enjoy it, but I’ve got some funny stories that showed life is not very boring. It made life interesting.”
Verbeek was also interested in charitable causes during his time in Hartford, including work with the Whalers’ anti-hunger program, Special Olympics and the Leukemia Society. His two daughters were born at New Britain General Hospital after son Kyle was born in New Jersey, but after getting seven goals and 11 assists in 29 games in 1994-95, Verbeek was traded on March 24, 1995 to the Rangers for a first-round draft pick that year, defenseman Glen Featherstone, minor-league defenseman Michael Stewart and the Rangers’ fourth-round pick in 1996.
Verbeek had 10 goals and five assists in 19 games with the Rangers the rest of that season and then added four goals and six assists in 10 playoff games. That also was the season that he got the nickname “The Little Ball of Hate” from Rangers goalie Glen Healey. He said it “really picked up steam” the next season, when former Whalers center Ray Ferraro joined the Rangers and became “The Big Ball of Hate.”
“We were about the same size and real competitors, and he was kind of real grumpy off the ice and I was grumpy on the ice,” Verbeek said. “It got even more known when I got to Dallas, but my teammates loved it when they heard about it.”
Verbeek’s first full season on Broadway was one of his best as he had 41 goals and 41 assists in 69 games, missing 15 with a knee injury, and then added another three goals and six assists in 11 playoff games. But Verbeek then signed a three-year contract with Dallas as a Group III unrestricted free agent on July 3, 1996 and played in his 1,000th NHL game for Nov. 11. He missed part of the 1996-97 season with sprained knee but became the first player in NHL history to have 400 career goals and 2,500 career penalty minutes during 1997-98 season with his 2,500th penalty minute during a game against the former Whalers, the Carolina Hurricanes, on March 20, 1998.
Verbeek missed the remainder of the 1998-99 season and started the playoffs with a sprained knee but ended with the highlight of his career, a Stanley Cup title, as the Stars beat the Buffalo Sabres in six games in the finals. Verbeek’s teammates includes Hall of Famers Mike Modano and Joe Niewendyk, who was a linemate with Benoit Hogue.
“There’s nothing that beats winning the Stanley Cup,” said Verbeek, who had three goals and four assists in 18 games on the way to the most prized trophy in hockey.
Verbeek became a Group III unrestricted free agent after winning Stanley Cup but failed to catch on with a team in the off-season and had to wait until the start of the 1999-00 season before finding a new NHL home, signing a two-year contract with Detroit on Nov. 10, 1999. He recorded his 500th NHL assist in a game at Vancouver on Jan. 19, 2000 and notched his 1,000th NHL point against Tampa Bay on Feb. 27 as he assisted on Yzerman’s goal only 40 seconds into the game.
Verbeek reached another milestone when he scored his 500th NHL goal against Calgary Flames goalie Fred Brathwaite on March 22, 2000, making Verbeek the only player in NHL history with 500 goals and 2,500 penalty minutes. But after getting only 15 goals and 15 assists in 67 games, the Red Wings didn’t re-sign Verbeek, who rejoined Dallas as a Group III unrestricted free agent on Aug. 31, 2001. He missed part of the 2001-02 season with a bruised knee and a strained groin, sustained in what would be his final NHL game against Columbus on April 1, 2002. He again became a Group III unrestricted free agent after the season but failed to catch on with another NHL team and made his retirement official on April 23, 2003.
Verbeek retired with 522 goals, 541 assists and 2,905 penalty minutes in 1,424 NHL games and was on Team Canada that won a bronze medal in the 1983 World Junior Championships, a silver and gold medal in the World Championships in 1989 and 1994 and finished second in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. While contemplating his future, Verbeek worked as a part-time television studio analyst in Detroit and then was named a part-time color commentator before the 2003-04 season, remaining in that position until Sept. 7, 2006.
“It’s funny how things work out sometimes,” Verbeek said. “I was looking at getting involved in doing (the TV work), but the producer was only going to give me a certain number of games.”
So the man known as “Beeker” began pursuing a scouting job and was hired by his hometown Red Wings for the 2006-07 season. After working for his former team for four years, he joined the Lightning last season.
“I’m kind of Steve Yzerman’s eyes, a personnel scouting sort of thing,” Verbeek said.
Verbeek is especially busy this time of year with the NHL trade deadline being Monday at 3 p.m. But he has still made time to watch his son, Kyle, a junior at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, play a few games this season. Lyle wears No. 16, his dad’s number on the Whalers, and has got some of his friends at Sacred Heart to wear Whalers hats.
Father and son participated in the Harvest Properties.com Whalers Hockey Fest at Rentschler Field in East Hartford last February as Pat played in the Whalers-Bruins alumni game and Lyle and Sacred Heart faced the University of Connecticut. While Verbeek appreciates what Whalers Sports and Entertainment did a year ago and is doing for him and six others on March 10, there’s always the hope of getting into the ultimate Hall of Fame, the NHL variety in Toronto.
“Obviously that would be an honor,” Verbeek said. “That’s not something you think about when you start playing, but it would be really cool to achieve.”