Exactly three weeks after the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup on June 9, 2010 — a date that Kris Versteeg has permanently etched into the skin on his right arm — general manager Stan Bowman called Versteeg and told him he had been traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of many salary cap victims that summer.
Versteeg was crushed, but understood. He also wanted to put something in the back of Bowman’s mind.
“I said if there’s ever a chance, I would love to come back,” Versteeg said on Friday afternoon, donning a bright red Hawks hoodie about 14 hours after he was reacquired by the Hawks in a trade that sent Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen to Florida. “It obviously happened, and I’m really excited about it. I’ve got hopefully a lot of years ahead of me, and hopefully it’s as a Blackhawk. It’s where my heart is.”
Versteeg left Chicago, but Chicago never left Versteeg. As he bounced from Toronto to Philadelphia to Florida, where he spent the last two-plus seasons dealing with a knee injury and a lot of losses, the unforgettable times he had with the Hawks were never far from Versteeg’s mind, much as he tried to move on. He’d see his old teammates every summer. He’d watch as guys he came up with in the Hawks system became fixtures. And he looked on with mixed emotions as so many of his friends won a second Stanley Cup this past spring — without him.
“I’d be lying to say I wasn’t jealous,” he said. “It’s something I was a part of in 2010, and it was a very special experience for myself, and to see them go through that again — you’re very excited for your friends that were on the team and the organization that you did it with in 2010, but obviously you’re a little jealous because you’d like to be there, too, and helping.”
Now Versteeg gets that chance, and despite his struggles so far this season — just two goals and five assists in 18 games with the Panthers, coming off knee surgery — the three-time 20-goal scorer instantly fills several needs for the Hawks. He skated on the right wing of the third line — a revolving door of players so far this season — with Bryan Bickell and Andrew Shaw, and will be in that spot Saturday night in Nashville, and, if things go well, for the long term. He’s also a proven performer on the power play and the penalty kill, two areas of concern for the Hawks.
Panthers general manager (and former Hawks GM) Dale Tallon told reporters on Friday that the move — in which Florida swallowed half of Versteeg’s $4.4 million contract over the next two-plus season — was strictly performance based, and that Versteeg had been “inconsistent,” and “trying to do too much, trying to carry the burden of the big contract.”
But Hawks coach Joel Quenneville knows what Versteeg can do — he had 42 goals and 55 assists in his two full seasons in Chicago — and thinks that, even as he works his way back from a torn ACL, he can be a valuable contributor.
“Nice acquisition for us,” Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said. “Steeg is very versatile in what he brings to our team. He can play all positions up front. You can play him in all situations — PP, PK regular shift. Pretty handy guy and very useful. We like what he brings to the team.”
And to the dressing room. The laid-back Versteeg, who famously rapped at the Hawks’ 2010 parade, was a favorite of both fans and teammates alike. On Friday, his locker stall was next to Shaw’s.
“They’re going to talk each other’s ears off,” said Bickell, who’s been playing with Versteeg since their minor-league days in Norfolk in the 2006-07 season.
Versteeg was relatively mellow on Friday, probably because he was going on 30 minutes of sleep after catching a 6 a.m. fight to Chicago. And maybe because he’s still a little shell-shocked that after a few tough seasons, he’s right back where he always wanted to be.
“It’s still a lot to process,” he said. “I’ve had so much good times here and you almost put that all in the rear-view mirror, because you never thought you’d come back. Now I’m back here and it’s now about getting back to playing hockey and trying to put my best foot forward every night to try to help the team in whatever way I can.”