Kris Versteeg retired from professional hockey this week, after 15 seasons -- 11 in the NHL -- and two Stanley Cups. Versteeg had stints playing with the Florida Panthers, for his hometown Calgary Flames, and then in Russia, Sweden and Slovakia before hanging up his skates, but he'll always be remembered as a fan favorite for the Chicago Blackhawks.
At 5-foot-11, with a self-professed "different personality" and "massive chip on his shoulder," Versteeg played a huge role in the Blackhawks' 2010 Stanley Cup run. He scored six goals that postseason -- including two game-winners -- and 14 points in 22 games.
Versteeg was a guest on ESPN on Ice this week to discuss bouncing around Europe the last few years of his career, why the Blackhawks and the fans in Chicago developed such a strong relationship (especially at the bars), and what makes Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane both unique -- and maybe misunderstood.
ESPN: Why did you decide to hang up your skates now?
Versteeg: Well, let's just say it wasn't the coronavirus that did it to me. I knew it was coming. Probably since last year, when I was done in the NHL and headed over to Russia. You realize that it is difficult playing over there without kids. You start to weigh pros and cons. You give yourself maybe another year to try to do it. I did that, really to play with my brother [Mitch] and play in the Spengler Cup. I did that, and after that, I kind of knew it was going to be over.
We talked with the [players' association] about doing an announcement. We were going to do it right at the end of the year, but obviously with the coronavirus thing they put it on hold, and then got back to me about announcing it a few days ago.
ESPN: One of your last stops was in Nitra in Slovakia. How did you end up there?
Versteeg: My brother has been there. This is his fourth year now. He's been over in Europe for about eight years, and we've never played together. I always told him at one point in our careers, I'd love to play together. I knew with everything going on in the end of my career, that it was going to be a possibility. After [AHL] Rockford was over, I had those injuries, and it was just too tough to deal with that schedule again on my body.
Fortunately there was an opening there on his team. But unfortunately, during the second period in the Spengler Cup Final, I took a shot off my foot and broke my navicular bone so I only got to play a couple games with him. But at the end of the day, it was an amazing experience. It also makes you understand how good hockey players all over the world are. It's not just the NHL or AHL. These players come from all over. It makes you really respect and understand what people go through, not only at the NHL level, but even Slovakia and countries where hockey is arguably their No. 1 sport.
ESPN: Right after your NHL career, you signed in the KHL. But you only played 11 games with Omsk, and then went to the Swedish league that season. What's the story there?
Versteeg: I'm sure people's brains are going, "did I get smuggled under a plane and thrown out of the country," or something. But you know what? I went there, and what the issue was, a lot of the times when you go there, you have to be OK to come into the country. My family applied for their letters, so it was going to be a while until they could come in.
I showed up and I got a really bad stomach bug. I don't know what it was, but I was sick for like two weeks. I was away from my family and a little stressed out. I ended up getting shingles. It's like, oh boy. It was like someone was stabbing me. I was laying in a bed in St. Petersburg, and it was like someone was stabbing me with a hot fork in the back for like three days. It was horrible.
I came back and played another week after that. My family and my kids were at home. My wife was pregnant. It was a little too much stress to deal with. But overall -- Bob Hartley was my coach, and Max Talbot was there, David Desharnais, so having guys around like that was great. And the guys on the team were great. I think in any hockey room they can say that. But I wasn't there long enough to give you crazy stories, and they did treat me well when I was there. So I really had no complaints. It was the fact that I was away from my pregnant wife and family and I couldn't mentally make it work.
ESPN: What was it like playing for Bob Hartley?
Versteeg: He's upfront. He's in your face. He's intense. I only played 10, 11 games for him, but you hear stories and have guys talk to you about before you go there about what it's like playing for him. For me, he was fair and he gave me an opportunity to play there so I really have no ill will feelings toward anything there. I just told him look, my family, that's what it came down to for us.
You do see the passion and demand is high. Not just in games. In practices, it was hard. It was probably the hardest practices of my professional career.
ESPN: What was it like to be a young guy in Chicago at a time when the Blackhawks became an all-encompassing -- I'm not going to say Michael Jordan-level Bulls popularity, but you guys ruled the town for a few years. What was that like?
Versteeg: It was wild. And you are right about that. Obviously nothing is like Jordan. Jordan is my idol. But the guys after Jordan, the guys like [Patrick] Kane and [Jonathan] Toews felt like Scottie Pippen and Steve Kerr and those guys. It really was amazing.
When I got there, during the 2007-08 season, I remember there were like six to seven thousand people in the stands. I went to a bar with my NHL card. I got to the front of the line, and they were like, "What is this?" I'm like, "I'm coming in, of course." And they're like get out of here, and they kick me to the back of the line. It was not even six months later, we started the 2008-09 season, and obviously William Wirtz passed away, and Rocky came in, and [team president] John McDonough came in, and it was like the checkbook was opened and they really tried to bring back as many fans as you could. You had every gender, every age coming back in droves to be Hawks fans. Not only did they want to be fans because of all of the work that went into it, but the talent was on the ice.
Obviously social media was a little different, and we had a really good relationship with the fans. We were always out. If they were out with us, we'd hand them a beer or whatever, and thank them or they'd thank us. It was a little more old-school in that sense. It was a great relationship both ways. I think the thing that really epitomized that was the 2010 Cup, when we won and brought it to every bar, and every tavern, or every little hole in the wall that every guy went to, and we showed it off there. I know my establishment, that I loved, that my good friend worked at forever, was a tavern and we brought it there. Then we'd get back on the bus and go to the next place. We really did have fun and took it in with the entire city.
ESPN: When do you think it changed? Because it's not like that with the guys now. Did you notice a change in your second stint with the Blackhawks [from 2013-15]?
Versteeg: Yeah, it did. The other thing is, a lot of our hairlines were worse the second time I got back. Guys changed, families had come along. Even social media changed a lot of that aspect. Back then, it was hard to explain -- it's not hard to explain, it's easy to explain. We had a brotherhood. We started in the minors, we came up together, and I thought we were big during the '08 to '09 season, it went from nothing to crazy.
But where it took off was after we lost to Detroit in the Western Conference finals in 2009, it was a damn near parade. We were at this one country bar, and all 20 of us were standing on chairs, and they had it roped off. Just us 20! We were just out having beers, and there were probably five or six hundred people just standing there watching us drink beers. And the whole outside of the bar was packed. It was like rock star stuff. Like, what is going on? And I think that was the moment where we realized what was being created within a city. If you win, and you compete, and you work hard for the people of Chicago, they'll reciprocate love and give it back. And boy did they ever. It was an amazing bond.
ESPN: Did you have any other favorite stops outside Chicago?
Versteeg: I had two. Florida, I loved Florida. I played my best hockey, I think, in Florida my first 45-56 games. I think I had 48 points, and then I tore my hip really bad. Tried to play a couple more games, and just couldn't do it. Missed three weeks, came back, and it just wasn't the same. Not until the playoffs where you could take stuff to help you play, basically. Me and Dale Tallon had a great relationship. I owe him a lot. He made my family's life a lot easier for what it is, from either paying me or giving me an opportunity. Obviously, I then had my hip surgery, then tore my knee, so from the hockey aspect toward the end it was a little rough. But the living and lifestyle and how I was treated there, I loved it.
And then Calgary. They let me come home. Brian Burke, who made a stamp on my career as well, I really respect a lot. Brad Treliving, as a GM and as a person. Just two great guys. They gave me an opportunity to come home at the end of my NHL career, and prove that I could still play at a decent level, and help and compete, and I really tried to give everything I had left to my hometown. I don't think it was something I could have done at the start of my career, but near the end, with my family and everyone, you realize that coming home and playing in front of friends and family, there's really nothing more special than that to me.
ESPN: I'm convinced that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews' personalities in the public are kind of exaggerated, and also the opposite. Kane is more serious than people give him credit for, and Toews is a little more fun than he shows. Do you agree?
Versteeg: A hundred percent. I said that since day one. Everyone is like, Toezer is Mr. Serious. And he is serious, and in his own bubble he is driven, and there's nothing like it. But the person I've seen put more work into his game than anyone is Patrick Kane. It is before practice, after practice, there is no one who loves hockey more than Patrick. He has put endless amount of work into it, and you can see it. You can see as he gets older how fresh he is out there. The guy plays 24, 25 minutes. He's so efficient. That's all a testament to him putting the work in each and every day, and wanting to be better.
I played on a line with him a lot of the time in Chicago, and he demands a lot of his linemates too. I remember countless times, he would tell me if I had the puck there was someone else who should have it. So if he's demanding the puck, and he wants it, obviously he's going to get it. There's a dog in him that all of the top players have, but he had a little more bite and wanted to work a little bit harder than everyone else.
ESPN: To that end, do you have a favorite story that you feel shows Toews' personality?
Versteeg: I was kind of known for just picking at John. Me and [Dustin Byfuglien] would always pick at John and go at him. He'd always set up his three pucks at practice, and stick handle around them, and do his serious drills. We'd be rifling pucks at his piles and then he'd come over, and snap, and swing his stick and shoot his pucks at us. He'd go back and set them up again, and then bang, would be right back at it again.
John is a great friend of mine. He's someone who has a heart of gold. I know if someone was going through tough times, he would always notice it, and he'd come over and talk to you and sit you down. I know it's not a funny story, but it truly shows what he is and the person he is. The pulse he has on his team. He doesn't just care about you as a hockey player, he cares about you as a person. He was one guy I loved to pick at, from my first game to my last, and I still troll him hard on Instagram. That's never going to stop.
ESPN: Do you think Toews would ever run for office?
Versteeg: Damn, both of those guys could in Chicago. The thing about me and John is that we've always been able to talk about things other than hockey. We have a lot of similar interests. He's someone, obviously with his foundation, trying to feed children and do it in a natural way, having your own garden, things like that. I think those are amazing things he's doing. At times, it might poke certain bears, politically. I think a little while ago, on social media, if he would say things it would tick people off.
Right now, he's a hockey player. But I definitely could see him later on in life, finding another way to change people's lives, whether it's more philanthropy or something else. He's going to have many avenues he can choose. I wouldn't actually be surprised if that's the way he'd want to go in life.
ESPN: So what's next for you?
Versteeg: I think I'm going to get back into media. I'm finding out that it's hard, because you get 15 seconds to give your piece, and you don't really get to encapsulate everything you were thinking into that 15 seconds. So those are things you need to learn with repetition. I did some games in Calgary in the 2018-19 season, and I did the trade deadline, which was a cool experience. I really enjoyed it. Sportsnet has asked me to come on and do some more and get some more reps in and try my hand at that.
I really want to do it because my kids are young, and I really want to coach them and try to give them everything I learned. I played with so many great players and coaches that I try to turn everything onto them. Maybe when they're done, and I'm done coaching them, then maybe I can get back into the game. But media really seems like something where I can stay relevant and help and watch hockey and be a part of something and have a purpose, while also being able to help my kids full-time with scheduling.