By Mike Commito, Sudbury Wolves Historian
When Pat Verbeek was drafted third overall by the Sudbury Wolves in 1981, he didn’t know much about the franchise that would help to launch his professional hockey career. “I knew Dale Hunter had played for them, but that was about it,” Verbeek recently told the Sudbury Wolves.
Verbeek grew up in the small, rural village of Wyoming, just ten miles away from Sarnia, and was able to play Junior-B in nearby Petrolia for the Jets. Getting selected by the Wolves was a huge opportunity for Verbeek, as it represented the start of his journey to the NHL. “I was excited, obviously, but I was nervous about the season and how I would perform. I was just hoping to have a good year so I could get drafted,” he reflected.
Any doubts about Verbeek’s performance with his new team quickly vanished when he settled in to Sudbury. In his debut season with the Wolves, he led the league in scoring among rookies, racking up 37 goals and 88 points. For his efforts, Verbeek was chosen by the coaches as the recipient of the OHL’s Rookie of the Year award.
Despite Verbeek’s valiant performance on the ice, the team struggled mightily during his time in Sudbury. In the 1981-82 campaign, the Wolves registered just 19 wins. It was difficult for the players, but Verbeek remembers they just tried to approach it one game at a time and do their best to push through it. “It was tough winning for whatever reason. We had some good players. Just not enough good ones to win,” he recalled.
Although the team’s performance left much to be desired, Verbeek’s efforts had caught the attention of NHL clubs. In the 1982 NHL Entry Draft, he was selected in the third round by New Jersey. The team had just recently relocated from Colorado, where they had played as the Rockies, and had not yet decided on a name. Verbeek knew he might be playing in New Jersey one day, but at the time of the draft, it was still nameless. Less than a month later, following an extensive naming contest, the team revealed that it would be known as the Devils. The name was a nod to supernatural creature that was thought to inhabit northern New Jersey’s pine barrens.
Before returning to the Wolves the following season, Verbeek had the opportunity to participate in the Devils’ first-ever training camp. “After I got drafted, I had a pretty good camp in Jersey. I was not sure of what was going to happen,” he recalled. Despite turning heads at camp, Verbeek was ultimately sent back to Sudbury for another season. “When they sent me back they told me to make sure I had a good season and basically told me they were going to call me back if we didn’t make the playoffs,” he reminisced.
While awaiting his opportunity with the Devils, Verbeek followed up his rookie performance with another impressive campaign, potting 40 goals and registering 67 assists. It did little, however, to improve the team’s fortunes, and the Wolves finished the season with just 15 victories.
Despite the Wolves’ poor performance in the standings, Verbeek made the most of his time in Sudbury. “Being more north, it was a lot colder than where I grew up and there was more snow, but I had fun,” he said. When they weren’t at the rink, Verbeek and his roommate, Jim Koudys, did their best to embrace all the winter activities the city had to offer. “We did some cross-country skiing, so I learned to do that. I did a lot more winter things outside than I normally would have done back home,” he said. They didn’t do any ice fishing, but Verbeek’s billets had a snowmobile so he and Koudys would often spend some of their days off cruising the trails.
Following the end of his second season in Sudbury, the Devils were true to their word. Verbeek got the call, and made his NHL debut on March 21, 1983, against the New York Rangers. In his second game, on the road in Washington, Verbeek scored his first career NHL goal and assisted on another in a 5-3 loss to the Capitals. After that contest, New Jersey head coach Billy MacMillan was impressed by his rookie’s performance and noted that he had resisted the urge to bring up Verbeek earlier in the season because he didn’t want to rush his development. Although the Devils could have used Verbeek’s scoring touch throughout the year, he made up for lost time, scoring five points in the team’s final stretch of games. For Verbeek, he couldn’t have closed out the season any better. “It kind of set the table for me to play the next year in New Jersey,” he recalled.
After seizing his first opportunity at the NHL level, Verbeek never looked back. He went on to have an NHL career that spanned three decades, highlighted by 522 goals, 1,062 career points, 2,905 penalty minutes, and a Stanley Cup with the Dallas Stars in 1999. To this day, Verbeek remains the only player in league history to have 500 career goals and 2,500 minutes’ worth of infractions. Following his professional hockey career, Verbeek traded in the penalty box for the broadcast booth, before eventually becoming a pro scout with the Detroit Red Wings.
Today, Verbeek is the Assistant General Manager of the Tampa Bay Lightning, where he reports to Steve Yzerman. When Verbeek was drafted third overall by the Wolves in 1981, the player taken immediately after him by the Peterborough Petes was none other than Yzerman. But with the Wolves and Petes playing in separate divisions, they rarely squared off much during their OHL career and Verbeek doesn’t recall much about playing against his current boss back in the day. “I knew who he was when we played against him, but I was kind of oblivious back then,” Verbeek said. The two would get to know each other much better as teammates in Detroit and now as colleagues in Tampa Bay.
Nearly four decades after his debut campaign with the Wolves, no other Sudbury player has scored as many points in their rookie season as Pat Verbeek. Although some, such as Derek Armstrong, have come awfully close, Verbeek’s 88 points in 1981-82 remains the gold standard for Wolves rookies.