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FEATURE: Versteeg eager to show AHL deal is no joke

Two-time Cup champion has plenty to prove in return to Blackhawks organization

by Chris Kuc @ChrisKuc / Blackhawks.com

Kris Versteeg doesn't have to do this.

He doesn't need the money, he doesn't need the fame and he doesn't need to prove anything to anyone. He has a wife and just welcomed his third young child and could be content with being a family man who had a distinguished NHL career, including helping the Blackhawks capture Stanley Cup championships in 2010 and '15.

Why, then, is Versteeg extending his hockey career by signing with the Rockford IceHogs with an eye toward a third stint with the Blackhawks.

"What I need to do is play hockey," Versteeg said. "If I didn't feel like I needed to play hockey I would be done and I would have retired."

The need to play has been rekindled following a spate of injuries that derailed Versteeg's career to the point where not long ago he was sitting at home believing his playing days were over. But at age 33, the Lethbridge, Alberta, native's body has sent the message that it is ready to give it another go.

It's understandable that Versteeg sounds almost surprised that his health has rebounded enough to allow him to continue a career that began with the Blackhawks during the 2007-08 season and later featured stops with the Maple Leafs, Flyers, Panthers, Blackhawks again from 2013-15, Hurricanes, Kings and Flames before spending last season in Europe.

"It's been a long road," Versteeg said. "I guess the only people who would really know how hard it's been are my closest friends and family."

Along the road, Versteeg had five major surgeries in just over six years beginning in 2012, including one for a groin injury, two on his hip and one each on his knee and hand.

"It's been hard because every year you're trying to go play hockey and you're basically trying to recover and get back to Ground Zero," Versteeg said. "The most frustrating part is that you miss five or six of the best years that you probably should be playing hockey. I was coming off four over-20-goal seasons in a row and then you go into groin, hip, knee, hand and hip surgeries all within a short amount of time. It was disheartening."

So disheartening that in November of 2017, Versteeg believed his career was over thinking to himself that, "I had nothing left."

Still, Versteeg endured and when the Flames were battling for a spot in the playoffs in 2018, he rehabbed his latest hip surgery enough to rejoin the team in an effort to contribute on the power play. That return, though, quickly ended due to the injury.

During the ensuing summer, Versteeg received a couple of two-way offers as well as PTOs from NHL clubs but, "I thought about giving up."

It was then that he received an offer to play for Omsk Avangard of the KHL and Versteeg did something he hadn't done before: He went for the payday.

"I made the greedy decision to go to Russia and it didn't work out," said Versteeg, who developed a painful case of shingles and played just 11 games with Omsk before returning to North America. "I came home and, yeah, I pretty much thought again that was it, for sure, for my career."

Even if Versteeg wanted to continue playing, Omsk refused to release him from his contract so he relaxed at home for three months while helping coach a youth hockey team.

It was another call from overseas that changed the course of Versteeg's life, this time from the Swedish team Vaxjo HC that was in need of a power-play specialist as it fought for a postseason berth.

"I warned them that I hadn't been skating but they helped get me my buyout from the Russian club and I went to Sweden and without being in the shape I wanted to be in, cardio-wise and everything, I played really, really well," Versteeg said. "It kind of gave me a little hope and then as I kept going I'm like, 'Man, I think I can keep playing at a high level.'"

Versteeg had four goals and seven assists in 12 regular-season games with Vaxjo and then added four goals and two assists in seven postseason contests.

Suddenly, Versteeg was upbeat about his hockey-playing future and he soon reconnected with Blackhawks Vice President of Hockey Operations/Team Affiliates Mark Bernard, with whom Versteeg had forged a relationship when he played in the AHL after arriving via a trade with the Bruins in 2007.

While other NHL teams were talking with his agent about possible AHL deals, Versteeg and Bernard worked out the one-year contract the winger signed with the Blackhawks organization on their own.

"Since I signed that contract I've gone full bore," Versteeg said. "I haven't taken any time off, really, except maybe two or three weeks after the season. I've been skating and working with skating coaches and skills coaches - something I've never done in the past-so when I get to Rockford I can show that this is no joke. I'm ready to play.

"The motivation is there because I missed so many good years and I still want to play at a high level," he added. "I felt like I missed out on quite a bit."

Tweet from @NHLBlackhawks: no one:absolutely nobody:kris versteeg at #BHC2019: pic.twitter.com/EMz6p9hfDH

Versteeg is embracing the role of mentor with the IceHogs and is eager to show Blackhawks prospects how to carry themselves on and off the ice. But the desire, of course, is to again don a Blackhawks sweater.

"It would be nice to go do that again," Versteeg said. "Obviously, I understand what I signed up for and what I'm there to do. If at some point the Hawks believe that they need me then I'm ready to do that.

"Where the future lies, it lies," Versteeg continued. "If I showed up not wanting to shoot as high as I can I wouldn't play hockey right now. What I'm here to do is to show I can play at a high level for Rockford and whatever happens from there kind of happens."

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