Nick Perbix finds NHL life perfectly imperfect in first pro game in Minnesota
With as many as 300 friends, family and Elk River community supporters there to see him, the former St. Cloud State star defenseman played his first NHL game in his home state.
ST. PAUL – A trip home to the State of Hockey meant packing a suitcase for Tampa Bay Lightning rookie defenseman Nick Perbix. But for the past year or so, luggage is life for the Elk River native.
“There was a good two months where I was living out of a suitcase, moving from hotel room to hotel room,” he said on Wednesday, a few hours before his team faced the Minnesota Wild at Xcel Energy Center. “I finally got a place and unpacked a little bit, but it’s always in the back of my head. You never know.”
Two levels up, in a suite overlooking the blue line, Nick’s parents Lisa and Jay prepared to welcome a dozen or so family and friends. If they were to welcome everyone who braved the snow and lousy road conditions to see Nick play his first NHL game in Minnesota, they might have needed the rink’s entire suite level.
“Between friends, family and the community, I would say there’s at least 300 fans here tonight to see Nick,” Jay said. “People that I haven’t seen in 20 or 25 years have reached out.”
They gave up on the idea of trying to wrangle tickets for 300 of their closest friends, and instead organized a pregame gathering at a nearby pub that was well-attended. As their suite began to fill up, Lisa marveled at the past 12 months, which saw Nick go from St. Cloud State to Beijing for the Olympics, back to college hockey, then to the professional minor leagues in Syracuse, New York, then to a NHL training camp, then to the Lightning, where he was playing his 31st career game on Wednesday.
Oh, and the family also got to see younger son Jack skate in the Frozen Four for the Minnesota Gophers last April in Boston. She joked that they were lucky just to get to see Nick in quick glimpses from time to time.
“We have seen him here and there, but he did live out of a suitcase,” Lisa said. “Luckily he’s a simple guy.”
While he loves the Florida sunshine in his new workplace, Jay noted that Nick would not let them send his golf clubs to Tampa until he got assurances that he was going to stay up at the NHL level, not wanting another piece of luggage to haul around.
The importance of imperfection
After a stellar junior year with the Huskies ended in the NCAA title game (with a loss to UMass), Perbix was offered a contract by the Lightning. He turned it down.
“He sat right in this office two years ago and had the same offer on the table from (the Lightning) and looked right at me and said, ‘You know coach, I want to come back for my fourth year because I know I can get better. I need to be mentally and physically stronger and prepared for pro hockey before I go,’” Huskies coach Brett Larson told The Rink Live's Mick Hatten on Tuesday. “I think that's a great lesson for kids. He could’ve signed and he wanted to do the right thing and it’s paying off.”
Perhaps the biggest lesson Perbix learned in college was to accept imperfection as a part of the game. Early in his time with the Huskies, Perbix was his own harshest critic. Learning from Larson to accept fallibility has been a key to his more recent success.
“I think that’s a big reason I’m here. I would let little mistakes get to me more than they should,” Perbix said. “It’s impossible to play a perfect game, and (Coach Larson) made sure I knew that. As much as I want to play a perfect shift every time I go out there, it’s not going to happen every time. Understanding that has really helped my progression.”
Indeed, Wednesday was a night in Minnesota that the Lightning will want to forget, and not just because of the snow and cold. The Wild’s first goal was via a puck that Joel Ericksson Ek banked off Perbix’s skate and past Tampa Bay goalie Brian Elliott (who backstopped Wisconsin’s most recent NCAA title, in 2006).
Perbix played nearly 12 minutes, recording three shots and had a plus/minus of minus-1 in the 5-1 loss. His best scoring opportunity came early in the second period when he took a pass from winger Nikita Kucherov into the circle but his shot couldn't beat Wild goaltender Filip Gustavsson.
It was a rude return to the rink where Perbix had last played early in his final season with the Huskies, in a win over St. Thomas when the building was roughly one-third full. Little did he know what the next 15 months or so would bring.
“It’s crazy. 2022 in general was just kind of all unexpected. If you’d told me in January what was going to happen, I’d have just laughed at you,” he said. “Between the Olympics and signing a contract and playing in the NHL and then signing another contract, you just can’t make it up. I still haven’t wrapped my head around it. Pretty fortunate.”
Larson saw plenty of Perbix in black and red, but as an assistant coach with Team USA in Beijing, he saw a player in red, white and blue who was bound for success at a higher level.
“I also thought his experience at the Olympics proved that he could play under that kind of pressure and still play his game,” Larson said. “I kind of thought in the back of my mind over there (in China): This kid’s going to make it.”
The boys made sure @perbix15 had a warm welcome home at the X! 🙌— St. Cloud State Men's Hockey (@SCSUHuskies_MH) January 5, 2023
📸 @schmidtyphoto #GoHuskies | #HuskyHockey 🏒 pic.twitter.com/Ai82UoNkg5
Wearing a nice suit, getting paid well and living in the Florida sun, after taking a team bus through the snow to make his home-state NHL debut, with hundreds of friends and admirers headed to the rink, Perbix was asked what it all meant to him. It was a question he couldn’t answer.
“I can’t wrap my head around it right now. It’s still so new, and I’m kind of wide-eyed right now,” he said. “I’m just trying to take it in, day by day, as much as I can.”
Enjoy the ride, especially when it comes time to finally unpack that well-traveled suitcase.