Kris Versteeg on Leafs atmosphere: 'crazy'

TORONTO -- Kris Versteeg looked at the throng of media in the dressing room Wednesday and realized, perhaps more than ever, just what he was in for.

"It feels like the Stanley Cup finals almost," Versteeg said. "For the first game of the season, this is pretty crazy, but it's something every player should look forward to. It's what you dream of growing up. You want to be in the hockey center of the universe and this is where it is. I'm excited to get things going."

Center of the hockey universe? Perhaps. Stanley Cup finals? Well, that's not even funny to joke about around these parts. Forty-three years and counting, baby.

But what it does offer if you're Versteeg is the most unique opportunity in the NHL. After helping end the Cup drought in Chicago, help end the newest Cup drought in Toronto.

"The roof would blow off this city. There's no doubt in my mind it would," Versteeg said of winning a championship here.

Let's get serious here, there ain't no Stanley Cup coming to Toronto this season. Still, it's telling coming from Versteeg's perspective that winning a Stanley Cup in Chicago last season, and reviving a great Original Six city in the process, would not compare to what it would mean in this city.

In no way is that a disrespect to Chicago, its great fans, the anthem experience and arguably the loudest rink in the NHL. But it's a reminder of what the game means here north of the border, and in a city that has had little to cheer about when it comes to the team that matters so darn much to them.

"It's nuts," Versteeg said. "I haven't even been in the city for three weeks yet and people already recognize you and know who you are. It's pretty crazy. It shows how much they want to win. They come up to you and talk to you about it. It's almost like every person in Canada is a coach, they know the game so well.

"But it's true -- this is our game, it's a Canadian game, and they want winners in Canadian cities."

Versteeg knows all about that passion for the game. It's been passed along honestly. The native of Lethbridge, Alberta, grew up in an Edmonton Oilers household.

"When I was born, my mother wanted the TV turned off," Versteeg laughed. "There was a Calgary Flames game on TV. She wouldn't have me come into the world to a Flames game."

His dad was a huge Wayne Gretzky fan. When The Great One, then coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, fumed at Versteeg following a fight with Kyle Turris a couple of years ago, Versteeg's dad gave his son heck for angering Gretzky.

So, yeah ... Versteeg was born for this part, the pressure of playing for a Canadian NHL team.

Now in Toronto, Versteeg will get the chance to be a top-line winger and power-play demon, a chance he really didn't really get on an incredibly talented Blackhawks team. Last season in Chicago, he was 14th in ice time per game (15:43) and only 10th in power-play time (1:55). That's not going to happen here, certainly not on a team thin up front when it comes to raw offense.

"If he doesn't play 20 minutes, I should be shot," Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson said Wednesday after practice. "He wasn't on the primary power play in Chicago, and at times, he wasn't even on the second line. So with expanded ice time, expanded opportunities, especially power-play opportunities ... the points are going to be there."

Versteeg has 44 goals in 170 NHL regular-season games. The belief is with first-line minutes, he can reach 30 goals on this team.

"I think with more ice time and more opportunity here, there's no doubt in my mind I can produce at another level and help this team win," Versteeg said.

Versteeg is turning the page, but he certainly won't forget. Winning a championship in Chicago with teammates that were like family will be a fond memory he will forever cherish. He still texts with Patrick Kane and Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien, among others. He also had dinner last week in Chicago with Kane, Jonathan Toews and others after picking up his Stanley Cup ring.

"Me and Kaner are still really close and I'm sure we'll always be," Versteeg said. "And Ladd and Buff, those guys are in Atlanta now. We still talk and keep in touch."

The truth is, Versteeg had a feeling he'd get traded from Chicago, so he wasn't shocked when it actually happened.

"I didn't even know if I'd be there after the trade deadline last year," Versteeg said. "You heard so much talk. I tried not to listen to it too much, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about it at all. I knew come the summer, some of us would have to go. Between me, Ladd and Buff, I knew a couple of us would go. I never thought 10 of us."

Just imagine, he was asked Wednesday, if that Hawks team had been able to stay together.

"There's no doubt in my mind it could have been a dynasty," Versteeg said. "We would have won a lot of championships. But I don't think about that anymore. I want to start something special here."