The Little Ball Of Hate
Being undersized never stopped Pat Verbeek. What he lacked in height, he more than made up for with feistiness, nastiness and determination.
Back in the late '90s, Stars coach Ken Hitchcock introduced the Dallas media to the word "sandpiper" when he talked about a player that possessed the right amount of grit that made him difficult to play against. Pat Verbeek fit Hitchcock's description perfectly.
Verbeek was less an agitator than he was just an overall pain, he wielded his stick and elbows with ferocity each and every time he stepped onto the ice. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder made for his vertically-challenged body with so much mental toughness that his teammates and coach couldn't help but become addicted.
Aptly dubbed the "Little Ball of Hate," Verbeek and his gruff style arrived in Texas in 1996, with the goal of winning his first Stanley Cup tucked in his back pocket. Hitchcock immediately became endeared with Verbeek's hard-nosed style and competitive drive, and knew Verbeek's consistent marches to the sin bin were completely erased by his ability to put the puck in the net.
"Toughness is only good if the guy can play," Hitchcock said.
That he could. Verbeek scored 31 goals in his second season with the Stars in 1997-98, and became the first player in NHL history to eclipse 400 goals and 2,500 penalty minutes during that season. In 1998-99, with the likes of Mike Modano, Brett Hull, Joe Nieuwendyk and Jere Lehtinen handling the bulk of the scoring load, Verbeek was left to agitating opponents, helping the Stars accumulate the second-most power-play goals (74) in the league that year.
"My game is on the edge, and I have to play on the edge," Verbeek said. "Coaches realize that if I know where the line is and they give me the freedom to play both sides of it, everything will be fine."
Despite all of Verbeek's toughness on the ice, perhaps is greatest moment of inner-strength occurred during the 1985 offseason. That's when Verbeek feared he would never play hockey again after a gruesome accident at his family's 150-acre pig farm just outside of Sarnia, Ontario.
Like he always did following the hockey season, Verbeek would go back to the farm to help out with the chores. One day while riding a corn planter, the New Jersey Devils young gun noticed some paper lodged in the auger. Trying to clear the jammed debris, Verbeek suddenly slipped, and in doing so had the majority of his thumb cut off by one of the sharp blades.
After his parents found the thumb lying in the field, his brother rushed him to the hospital. After six hours of micro-surgery, a doctor was able to re-attach most of the limb, using a vein taken from his foot to help with the blood circulation.
"I looked at my thumb and it wasn't there," Verbeek said. "It felt like a paper cut, but when I looked (my thumb) was gone. It was like, 'God, give me those three seconds back that I just had.'"
Verbeek jokes that this was the moment when all the cement poured out of his hands, giving him the soft touch that allowed him to deftly handle the puck and score scintillating goals from all areas of the ice. Ironically enough, he soon started filling the net about as much as he would routinely file into the penalty box. In an eight-year period starting in 1986, Verbeek averaged 37 goals and 203 penalty minutes.
Verbeek wasn't afraid to get into a tussle with the opponents tough guy either. On a Stars team that lacked a true enforcer, Verbeek became the leader of the team's hit parade
"We don't have a so-called heavyweight, but everybody sticks up for each other," he said. 'We're like a pack of wolves and sometimes you're worse off facing a whole pack of wolves than just one tough one. That's what we're all about."
As 1998 drew to a close, those wolves were flying high in their charter flight to Phoenix on Dec. 31, jacked up for a New Year's Day showdown with the Coyotes in the desert following a big win over Boston that closed the month of December.
Armed with a franchise-high 13-game unbeaten streak, the Stars went into the game with Phoenix on a roll. After all, they hadn't lost since a 4-1 defeat at Vancouver on Dec. 4, and were fairly healthy -- with the exception of defenseman Richard Matvichuk, who was nursing a charley horse.
Phoenix, meanwhile, came into the affair six points behind the Pacific Division-leading Stars, and just as fired up to knock out the best team in the West despite missing two of their top players, Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick, who were both bothered by injuries.
Throughout the game, fans had witnessed some of the best hockey of the season, as the two conference powers skated up and down the ice in an unusually fast-paced contest. After 40 minutes, neither team had been able to put the puck past either Dallas backup goalie Roman Turek or Coyotes' netminder Nikolai Khabibulin.
Modano finally broke the deadlock with his 12th of the year on the power play early in the third to give the Stars a 1-0 lead. The slim advantage looked as if it was going to stand until Phoenix's Deron Quint sent the game into overtime with his first goal of the year. It came with 33 seconds left, and with Khabibulin on the bench in favor of an extra attacker.
Undaunted, the Stars shrugged off the late tally, regrouped, and promptly took home a win after Hull notched his 13th just 37 seconds into the extra frame. Modano earned the primary assist while lying on his stomach after being hauled down by defenseman Keith Carney, sliding the puck to Hull who chipped in the winner.
"I was gaining speed as the play was coming up, and I got a little bit of breathing room," Modano said. "Both of the defensemen came to me and Brett was wide open. If there's one guy you want open in front of the net, it's him. I was falling and it wasn't the greatest pass, but it got to him and he got good wood on it."
"We stuck with it," Hitchcock said. "We just had to stay with the program because I knew we didn't have much gas in the tank left."
Dallas improved to 11-0-3 in its last 14 games, and returned home to play Vancouver on Jan. 6.
"We know it will eventually come to an end, but for the time being we're enjoying it," Modano said of the unbeaten streak, which to that point tied a league-high.
The Canucks contest was the complete opposite of what had transpired days earlier in Phoenix, as the Stars were able to hang on to take a wild 6-4 decision. Vancouver scored just 34 seconds into the game, and led 4-3 after Bill Muckalt's shorthanded goal three minutes into the third period. The resilient Stars battled back to secure the win with three final frame goals by Matvichuk, Guy Carbonneau and Lehtinen.
Carbonneau's tally was his first since March 29, 1998, a span of 44 games. The veteran shoveled home a rebound after Verbeek kept the puck alive by swatting it away from Vancouver defenseman Bryan McCabe.
Defenseman Darryl Sydor scored in the second period, notching his 10th of the year, and also added two assists. Sydor, who came close to winning a Stanley Cup in 1993 with Los Angeles only to see his dreams get dashed by the Montreal Canadiens in the Finals that year, was now just one goal away from his career-high of 11 set in 1997-98.
"I don't think we came out and played the way we wanted to," he said. "We fell behind 2-0, but then were able to get some power-play opportunities and make the best of it."
The win extended their unbeaten streak to 15 games (12-0-3), an NHL season high.
"We knew they were going to come hard at us because they were the last team to beat us," Carbonneau said.
Two nights later, the magical ride ended as Calgary blanked Dallas 1-0 behind the shutout goaltending of Fred Brathwaite, who was making his first start in almost three years.
Brathwaite was incredibly the sixth goaltender that the Flames threw into the net up to that point of the season. He was filling in for a cast of injured backstoppers that included Ken Wregget, Tyler Moss and J.S. Giguere.
"The guys played good in front of me tonight," Brathwaite said. "They gave me the shots from the outside and made my job real easy. It's been what, two years? I was pretty nervous all day. The shutout was nice. It was a little fluky, but I'll take it. That's just the way it went tonight. I got some bounces."
During the streak, the third-longest in the NHL during the 1990s, the Stars outscored their opponents by a 56-28 margin.
"We didn't have a solid enough effort to win," Nieuwendyk said about the Flames game that kicked-off a five-game road trip. "They were hungry.
TOMORROW: Mid-Month Blues in January
Author: Bob Matuszak