Look back on June 18, 2015, a third parade in the last six years for the city of Chicago to celebrate a Stanley Cup victory. Kris Versteeg hoisted the Stanley Cup at Soldier Field with the Chicago Blackhawks for the second time in his career. He “handed off” the victory belt to the late Clint Reif’s son, CJ, called for the crowd to dance along with the team and gave an encore performance at the mic from his 2010 parade rap with Joakim Nordstrom. It was a lasting memory, again, for Blackhawks fans to remember “Steeger” as the fun-loving, energy winger who was integral to Chicago bringing a third Stanley Cup in six season home to the Windy City.
While the majority of his professional career has been away from Chicago, Versteeg has played the most games for one organization under the Blackhawks watch with Chicago, the Norfolk Admirals and the Rockford IceHogs. In the spring, Versteeg was brought back to the organization on an AHL contract. The move brought back all the old memories and his play in training camp and the preseason made some believe he was in line to return to the NHL club after all.
But, that was not the plan then, and it will not be as long as Versteeg is back with the Blackhawks’ organization. While he was once the young gun, rapping goal-scorer for the Blackhawks, now the 33-year-old winger is the captain of a young Rockford IceHogs roster, the “old guy” of the team. His purpose being less to contribute as the top option, but more to lead the youth of the organization down the developmental path that the Blackhawks’ organization hopes for them.
Versteeg’s return focuses on prospect development
After hip injuries derailed his NHL career in 2017–18 with the Calgary Flames, Versteeg contemplated retiring from the sport all together. Ultimately he recovered from those injuries and played overseas during the 2018–19 season with Avangard Omsk in the KHL and Växjö Lakers HC in the SHL, and looked to have rediscovered his game after tallying 16 points in 23 games combined between the clubs and six points in seven SHL playoff games with Växjö.
In the spring, he rejoined the Blackhawks’ organization on an AHL contract with the Rockford IceHogs. After showing that he truly did still have jump to his game and could skate with the pros in the NHL and AHL, Versteeg was named the captain of the IceHogs and given the clear leadership role in a locker room that the average age is 10 years younger than the Alberta native.
“It was a pretty special moment,” Versteeg said after being named the captain in October. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had a letter. I don’t expect to change who I am or anything like that, but it was a moment I’m going to remember in hockey for a long time.”
This season has been tough for Versteeg from a health and production standpoint through the first month. He played the first four games of the year, tallying an assist in his second game with Rockford, but aggravated his lower-body hip injury against Laval Rocket and missed the next three weeks of action. He returned to the lineup on Nov. 8 against the Manitoba Moose as the IceHogs were riding a four-game win streak.
“Getting back into the lineup is really easy when the team is playing well,” Versteeg said to the media on Tuesday afternoon.
While Versteeg has been held to just one assist on the year through six games, he has remained an active part of the IceHogs’ attack.
Through six games, he has 16 shots on goal and has only gone one game without at least two shots on net, the game he left in the first period against Laval. Versteeg’s 2.67 shots per game rate is second on the team behind Dylan Sikura‘s 4.17 per game pace.
“For myself, I’m just building still,” Versteeg said of his evolving role with Rockford. “Hopefully as (the season) goes along, you start producing. But, as long as the team is winning, at this point in my career, that’s all that matters.”
He added about changing the way he plays at 33 years old.
“You have to use your head more,” Vertseeg said. “If I played the same way I used to play 12 years ago, I probably would have fought two guys last game and got kicked out. You have to be smarter. You have to realize the body isn’t what it used to be, which can be frustrating, but overall, you’re just looking at the aggressiveness and emotion that everyone has and it’s pretty refreshing to see.”
While production has not followed Versteeg so far in his small sample size of AHL work this season, his leadership role as captain to the young IceHogs has not changed and it is for the better.
“We got a great group,” Versteeg said. “When you come in and you’re around young kids again, you’re not sure what it’s going to be like. But, we got a great group and there’s a lot of untapped potential there.”
As the veteran of the locker room, Versteeg is consistently going to be relied upon by IceHogs head coach Derek King to be a second “coaching” voice in the room to help the development of the nearly a dozen rookies consistently getting ice time for Rockford this season.
“It’s almost daily,” Vertseeg said of young players coming to him for advice this season. “It’s fun to try to give some information that you see to the guys and at the same time, hopefully take something from them.”
It has been over a decade since Versteeg was playing in the AHL, enduring the daily grind of bus trips, playing three games in four days and battling to make a NHL roster, any NHL roster. After playing parts of three seasons with the Providence Bruins, Norfolk Admirals and Rockford IceHogs from 2006 to 2008, Versteeg became an NHL regular starting in the 2008–09 season. Coming back to the AHL as a two-time Stanley Cup champion and veteran of almost 750 NHL games including the playoffs, he is realizing the toll it actually takes on a young player.
“You don’t realize that these guys are literally killing each other to get a shot in the NHL,” Versteeg said. “I don’t think I realized it until I was sitting on the bench next to them and made me remember what I went through to get there. For me, coming back and seeing these guys laying their bodies on the line, the intensity overall and the assertiveness they are taking has been eye-opening. It’s something that maybe if I didn’t come back to the minors, I may have never noticed.”
Will he ever be a coach?
“No,” Vertseeg shot down quickly with a smirk. “I’ll coach my kids in hockey and then I’ll be probably going into TV. I’ll be the one with the microphone next, so watch what you say about me in the paper, eh? Cause I’m going to have the microphone next!”
While his role may have changed, he is still the “Steeger.”