'A hardworking, competitive team': What Pat Verbeek wants to build for the Anaheim Ducks

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Pat Verbeek retired from the NHL in 2002 after 20 seasons, 1,426 games, one Stanley Cup and the distinction of being the only player in league history to amass more than 500 goals and upward of 2,500 penalty minutes. Verbeek, affectionately known as the "Little Ball of Hate" as a player, was 38 years old and had no idea what he wanted to do. But he wanted to stay in hockey.

"Once they said, 'OK, Pat, you can't play hockey anymore' -- this is what they tell you, that's how you come to the realization you're no good anymore and you're never coming back -- I started to do things I never got to do as a player," said Verbeek, who was hired in early February as the Anaheim Ducks general manager.

First, he began coaching his son, Kyle. Though Verbeek admits he cherishes the "three really good years together," he quickly realized he wasn't cut out for life behind the bench.

"Part of me enjoyed it," said Verbeek, now 57. "But at that point in particular I was still intense. I hadn't mellowed out yet. I've mellowed a long way since my playing days."

Verbeek then tried the broadcast booth. He and Larry Murphy split fill-in duties as analysts for Red Wings broadcasts, and he got some reps at ESPN too.

"I worked with John Buccigross and Barry Melrose, we had some fun times," Verbeek said. "But then I thought, at some point, if I'm going to get involved, I need to do more."

Verbeek approached Ken Holland, his general manager for two years in Detroit, and told him that he wanted back in the game. Holland's advice: start talking to people in hockey and let them know.

Then Verbeek got a break. In 2006, Dave Lewis was hired as coach of the Boston Bruins, leaving his job as a pro scout with the Red Wings. Verbeek told Holland he wanted to interview for the vacancy. He was hired.

Verbeek partnered with Scotty Bowman and they spent a good six weeks together in the playoffs doing advanced scouting -- ironically, mostly of Anaheim, which won the Stanley Cup in 2007.

Holland had given Verbeek one year on the job because he wanted to make sure he liked it.

"I knew I'd like it," Verbeek said. "I was back at the rink, watching and analyzing pro hockey. I felt comfortable again."

What Verbeek brings to Anaheim

In early February, Verbeek was hired as the general manager of the Anaheim Ducks. Even in a season with four concurrent GM vacancies, this specific job generated a ton of interest.

"It wasn't a total rebuild, and that was very attractive," Verbeek said. "And then ownership is a huge thing. [Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli] had been supportive of their managers over the years, and that stands out."

Bob Murray had been on the job for 13 years before resigning in November amid an investigation for unprofessional conduct; Murray enrolled in an alcohol abuse program after.

The Samuelis formed a search committee to find a replacement and invited franchise legends Paul Kariya and Scott Niedermayer to be part of it.

The 2021-22 season in some ways has ushered a shifting tide in hockey hiring practices. Many searches have focused on "nontraditional hires" and those who have forged unique paths. Jim Rutherford was hired as president of hockey operations in Vancouver. But as a Canadian hockey lifer in his 70s who now had the opportunity to run his third NHL franchise, Rutherford focused on giving others chances, too. He hired Patrick Allvin as the NHL's first Swedish-born general manager, and fixated on interviewing women for high-ranking roles, hiring Emilie Castonguay and Cammi Granato as assistant general managers. Montreal hired Kent Hughes, a former player agent, as its GM while the Chicago Blackhawks cast a wide net in their search that included Jeff Greenberg, a former Chicago Cubs executive, as a finalist.

Verbeek, in many ways, is a more traditional hire who paid his dues both as a player and then in 16 years working his way up from pro scout to assistant general manager with the Red Wings. He is the long-serving lieutenant under Steve Yzerman and helped build the Tampa Bay Lightning team that won the past two Stanley Cups, before returning to Detroit, where they were working on returning the Red Wings to glory.

"Pat spoke about the importance of things you need to win a Stanley Cup -- the attitude of the team, the commitments and things you would expect players to do on the team to help them win," Niedermayer said. "What he was speaking on was precisely what I experienced when I won Stanley Cups. So I saw value in that."

Verbeek has always prided himself on work ethic. His father was a Dutch immigrant to Canada and bought a farm to harvest wheat and soybean. Now 80, Verbeek's dad still gets up before sunrise every day and goes to work. Verbeek was also known to log thousands of miles in his truck while scouting, avoiding airplanes if possible. He was the ultimate grinder, says Niedermayer, who, before this year, knew Verbeek's reputation only as a player.

"I knew what everybody else knew: He was a competitor, a player that was willing to pay the price to score goals," Niedermayer said. "He wasn't the biggest player, and he played in a tough era of hockey where there were a lot of big defensemen whose strategy in defending was to make it really uncomfortable around the net scoring goals ... and Pat was there."

Through the interview process, Verbeek also said he wasn't shy to embrace analytics -- something the Ducks haven't necessarily been known for in the past -- and explore new methods for doing things. Verbeek surmises he'll bring some of the same team-building strategies he picked up in Detroit and Tampa, but knows no two organizations can be replicated.

"We studied successful teams, then we found our own way to do it," Verbeek said. "In Tampa, we were fortunate because we had [Steven] Stamkos and [Victor] Hedman, two major pieces we could build around. That was a big advantage. We wanted draft picks. We wanted to throw as many darts at the board as we could. Then we need to make sure players develop. Those go hand-in-hand if you're going to build a team that can win in the cap era."

Where the Ducks go next

In Anaheim, Verbeek walks into a situation where he's already facing franchise-altering choices -- some that he might have to make in the next three weeks before the March 21 trade deadline. While it's not a total rebuild (the team is excited about young talent such as Jamie Drysdale, Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras, plus ultracompetitive goaltender John Gibson), three core players hit unrestricted free agency this summer: top-four defensemen Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson, plus top scoring winger Rickard Rakell.

Verbeek has had conversations with the agents for all three players, feeling out where they are and what they're looking for. He also has spent his first few weeks on the job doing what he knows best: scouting. He has been everywhere from Boston to Vancouver, checking in on some of the team's top prospects.

All the while, the Ducks remain in the playoff hunt, just two points out of a wild-card spot.

"At the end of the day, I have to assess the team and assess what's there and then at some point make a decision whether I'm going to be able to sign [Lindholm, Manson and Rakell] or not," Verbeek said. "We can't let anyone walk out the door for nothing."

Verbeek is ready to make shrewd business decisions, just like his mentor, Yzerman. He's already operating like the Hall of Famer, especially in dealing with the media, where Verbeek so far has been cagey, never wanting to give too much (if anything) away.

It's not lost on Verbeek that he's now part of Yzerman's management tree -- which really stems up to Holland.

"It was just a natural system; if I took more responsibility, the next person would take some of my responsibility, so we could develop people in our office," Verbeek said. "[Tampa Bay GM] Julien [BriseBois] was well on his track before that, it was just a matter of time for him. He ran a minor league team, won a couple championships, was a capologist and really, really smart on those issues. He was ready four years ahead of me. I took a longer track because there's still things that I could help Steve with."

Over the past year, though, Verbeek felt ready to take the jump himself. The biggest challenge he thinks will be "business stuff" and "inner-office stuff." But he came back from Canada to Detroit earlier in the offseason and said he felt like he was really plugged into everything going on.

In Anaheim, Verbeek has a vision for the identity of his teams: "Obviously, you're going to need skill and skating ability, but deep down that's the future I want to build: a hardworking, competitive team."

Kind of like their manager. Asked if he still liked the nickname "Little Ball of Hate," Verbeek laughed.

"I still like it," he said. "Because it still gives you some room, you know what I mean?"