FEATURE: The Inspiration Behind Versteeg's Final Push for NHL
Two-time Cup champion's attempted NHL comeback in honor of cancer-fighting motherby Chris Kuc @ChrisKuc / Blackhawks.com
Kris Versteeg picked up the phone to make perhaps the most difficult call of his life.
Having decided to end his quest for a return to the NHL, the former Blackhawks forward wanted the inspiration behind it to be the first to know.
In Lethbridge, Alberta, the phone of Versteeg's mother, Marilyn Rosner, rang.
What Versteeg hadn't made public when he signed with the Blackhawks organization back in April was that his goal to again play at the highest level well over a year removed from the NHL was to honor his mother, who had recently been diagnosed with cancer.
"The big motivating factor for me was my mom," Versteeg said. "She had breast cancer and she was fighting it and we had talked and I said back then, 'You fight this and do what you can and I'm going to fight and do what I can to get back.'"
Unfortunately, injuries limited Versteeg to just six games with the Rockford IceHogs of the AHL and after overcoming adversity throughout his playing career, the 33-year-old's desire to keep battling had begun to wane. In mid-November, Versteeg made the decision to step away and requested a termination of his one-year contract.
"There was no doubt in my mind I could get back to the NHL if I worked hard enough and did what I had to do in the minors, but deep down I'm not willing to go through all of that hurt and pain just to get back again," Versteeg said. "I was fine playing with those kids and everything but at the end of the day if I couldn't give 100 percent to them that wasn't fair. I thought I could do it. I tried it, it didn't work but I'm glad I did it because now I know."
All that was left was the phone call to his mother.
"She was the first person I called and I said, 'I don't know if I can do this anymore and I hope I didn't let you down,'" Versteeg said. "It was a hard conversation and it was very emotional for us. It was always for her because she went through a lot to help me get to where I am today by working multiple jobs and doing a lot of things for me and my brothers. It was hard but I had to tell her I didn't know if I had it in me anymore."
On the other end of the line, Rosner did what she had done throughout her life with her family: show support.
"He felt like he was disappointing me when he wasn't," Rosner said. "He's had an incredible career. I just really look up to him and how hard he's worked and how he faced all the adversity throughout his career."
Rosner said Versteeg honoring her by attempting to return to the NHL "means more to me than he'll ever know. I couldn't believe when he put my name on his skates and had the ribbon for the cancer society - that just shocked me. It just meant so much that he was supporting me in my recovery from cancer."
Supporting each other is a common theme in the Versteeg family and that will be on full display when Kris Versteeg takes the ice for 'One More Shift' prior to the Blackhawks' game against the Wild on Sunday night at the United Center.
Along with Rosner, Versteeg will be surrounded by family during the event. Included in the group will be his wife, Brittany, and three children, 4-year-old Jaxson, 3-year-old Maddox and 4-month-old Brynn.
While toasting Versteeg's 11-year NHL career - including two stints with the Blackhawks during which he helped them win Stanley Cups in 2010 and '13 - the group will also be celebrating Rosner's health.
"Right now, we are cancer-free and we are just continuing the treatment through the next stage of my recovery," said Rosner, who was diagnosed with breast cancer on April 1. "We're holding up well and we're going to kick ass. You have no other choice, you have to kick ass."
She'll be doing it with the love and support of her family.
"We're a really close family," Rosner said. "They've been in my corner, I'll tell you, fighting along with me and that's meant the world."
Making the moment even more special is Rosner's allegiance to the Blackhawks, which began while she was a young child.
"It was a thrill for me that Kris went to Chicago because I'm a big fan from way back," Rosner said. "I had the jersey and everything. I was a Chico Maki fan."
Why Maki, who played with the Blackhawks from 1961-76?
"Don't ask me, I was a little 6-year-old who decided the Blackhawks were my favorite team," Rosner said with a laugh.
Rosner recalled that Kris Versteeg's love of hockey began when he was given a stick from his aunt when he was two-and-a-half months old.
"It was in his blood and it was just what he wanted to do," Rosner said. "I've been blessed to be part of the journey with him."
Along the way, Versteeg proved to be as good a teammate as he was player on the ice and those on the current Blackhawks who played with him are looking forward to seeing him Sunday.
"He was a great teammate - a great guy in the locker room," Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said. "There was never a dull moment. There was always a story surrounding him and one of those guys you like being around. You knew he was going to bring a lot to the table on the ice but he also added to the character of the personnel in the locker room and I think that goes a long way when you're trying to build a Cup-contending team."
Included in that character was Versteeg's proclivity to break into song in the dressing room.
"Yeah, he wasn't afraid to be himself," Toews said with a laugh. "He brought that every single day and you love to have guys like that in the locker room."
While helping the Blackhawks capture two Stanley Cups are certainly career highlights, Versteeg said he is most grateful for the teammates he had along the way.
"Whenever I go to a really nice restaurant or nice nightclub I always tell my friends, 'You can thank Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith because without them we wouldn't be able to sit at the best tables in here,'" Versteeg said. "I'm just very thankful that I played with the great players that I got to play with. They obviously upped my play. At the end of the day, I believe I was a really good player - not great - and I tried to be for a long time while I went through a lot of injuries.
"I don't think I ever strayed too far from being me and tried to have fun," Versteeg continued. "I feel like I scored some big goals and set some up in some big moments but I'm mostly just very, very grateful to be able to play with those guys."
Sunday won't be the last time Versteeg laces up the skates as he is expected to play for Team Canada in the Spengler Cup in late-December in Davos, Switzerland. He will then eventually return to Slovakia where he is playing alongside his brother, Mitch, for HK Nitra. When that season ends, Versteeg will officially retire and embark on a TV broadcasting career in Toronto.
First, though, will be Versteeg's 'One More Shift.'
"It's something that means a lot to me and my family," he said. "I'm very happy."