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Your Flames Authority George Johnson chats with the Alberta boy about playing close to home now, kissing the Cup in memory of his dog, and whether Jonathan Toews is really Mr. Serious

by GEORGE JOHNSON @GJohnsonFlames /

He has become, this Lethbridge product, among the most popular of Flames, one of the great, at-first unheralded additions of the last few years, injecting a high skill level on the ice and a disarming perspective off it. Your Flames Authority George Johnson sat down with Kris Versteeg - re-signed to a one-year deal in the summer - to talk about being yourself, Cup moments, Captain Serious, Hat Trick the toy Pomeranian, and the great good fortune of playing so close to home.

JOHNSON: This is meant as a compliment: You're 'old-school.' By that I mean not afraid to show your personality, to enjoy yourself. A lot of pro sports now is staid damage-control, Generic Brand X. So, believe me when I say this - you're a refreshing change of pace.

VERSTEEG: We all have good days and bad days. I'm no different. But I've always said the day I stop being me - try to be someone else, someone other people want me to be or expect me to be - is the day I walk away from the game.

That wouldn't be true to myself, to my teammates or to you guys.

It's very robotic now, in a lot of things. Hockey, football, whatever. Everything is structured, managed, scrutinized, in today's world. So guys just don't want to deal with the headaches. And anybody who wanders outside the box, outside the lines, they get crap for it. You've gotta toe that line. But I look back at those old interviews where (Jeremy) Roenick and those guys are joking around, chirping each other … you definitely don't get to see that much anymore. And that's a shame.

Guys still have tons of personality. Get a camera in the room and you'd see.

JOHNSON: As someone who obviously does enjoy himself, who in the game makes you laugh?

VERSTEEG: Either Dustin Byfuglien or Bryan Bickell. (Byfuglien) is pure comedy. He'd rip tape off so you'd go out for warm-up with nothing on your stick. Or he'd come over to your stall and start throwing everything around. Constant crap going on with him. We played so many pranks on that Chicago team. But Buffy was the main one, he kept the room light. He's very unpredictable. He walks by you in the hallway he might either hug you or punch you. You never know. Definitely not cookie-cutter. He's crazy. He's different. I think he's great.

JOHNSON: Who would make your personal all-time all-star team?

VERSTEEG: Up front, Yzerman, Gretzky and Bure. Lidstrom and Bobby Orr on defence. Dominik Hasek in net.

JOHNSON: We think of you now as this veteran presence, double Stanley Cup winner. Established. Successful. But you paid your dues, spending the better part of two seasons toiling in the minors for the Providence Bruins, Norfolk Admirals and Rockford IceHogs.

VERSTEEG: The road wasn't easy. I wasn't a high draft pick. I didn't have the best junior career, per se. I played defence in junior my last year. Then I was drafted by Boston, went to Providence, played very well and just when I thought I'd be up, I got traded.

Then I had to re-start, re-set. You have to find a game that fits the pro game. So I did a lot of things that didn't make me comfortable, like fighting. I did whatever, everything, anything I could to get that call.

A lot of the first-rounders come in and are given a lot of opportunity. But when you're not, you have to earn that opportunity.

JOHNSON: Continuing on that out-of-my-comfort-zone line, any fight during that time that particularly had you thinking: 'Oh, man, what am I doing here …?'

VERSTEEG: Yeah, one. A big D-man in Lake Erie. I can't even remember his name. Anyway, he hammered a guy and I jumped in, threw a couple punches. But he was a lot bigger'n me, threw one, hit my helmet and it felt like my head had been crushed by a sledgehammer.

JOHNSON: What's your idea of a perfect day?

VERSTEEG: That's changed a lot. Now it's getting up with my kids, playing in the morning. I like to go and be around the guys, whether it be at the rink in the winter time or in the gym in the summertime. Then just come home, relaxing with family or friends over a couple drinks and good food. Then watch some TV. I'm not really a busy person anymore, the way I used to be.

JOHNSON: So the current edition of Kris Versteeg's perfect day differs from, say, a 10-years-ago younger version?

VERSTEEG: Oh, yeah. At 22 a perfect day was wake up at noon, go grab a pizza, have a couple beers. Go meet up with the boys at the pool. More beers. Go home, act like I was going to nap for a big night. Have your $5 and hopefully you could get a couple drinks at the bar.

But you grow up. Things change.

JOHNSON: Funny isn't it, how in retrospect, as you get older your parents seem to get smarter?

VERSTEEG: At 22, you're the only one who knows anything. Everyone else has no clue. I was definitely no different.

JOHNSON: Best concert experience.

VERSTEEG: Either George Strait or Garth Brooks. But my favourite moments at concerts … there's a DJ called Dash Berlin, or another one called Tiësto. My friend and I see these guys every year. We watch them just send it. They're amazing.

JOHNSON: Pretty standard fare here, but give me an indelible Stanley Cup moment, from the first hoist.

VERSTEEG: I remember Kane handing me the Stanley Cup. I remember kissing it. I'd lost my dog not too long before that. Her name was Hat Trick. The kind of name hockey kids give their dog, right? A toy Pomeranian. Our family dog. She was so special.

So I gave the Cup three kisses for Hat Trick.

Looking up and seeing your family in the stands, you can't believe it's actually happening. You're standing there, holding this thing, it feels like everybody in the world is watching you, and you want to hold it forever. But you get your 10 seconds, then I passed it on to (Niklas) Kjalmarsson.

I remember looking up at the roof at the Wachovia Centre in Philly and thinking 'Man! This is so sweet!' That's ingrained in my memory.

JOHNSON: Is Jonathan Toews as serious as his nickname suggests?

VERSTEEG: No. When he's playing he is. But he enjoys life. He's got a personality and a lifestyle that not many people know about. I actually thought Kane took it more serious, personally.

JOHNSON: As everyone knows, the United Centre rocks. The anthem. The noise. Any one night that sticks out as being more insane than the others?

VERSTEEG: Our first game playing against Calgary in the 2009 playoffs. That was the first time Chicago had been back in eight or nine years. We literally thought the building was going to fall down.

And then in 2010 playoffs, the finals against Philadelphia, I come out for warm-ups and the place is already packed and they're already chanting. You couldn't hear at thing. That was the loudest I've ever experienced, anywhere.

Those were two spine-tingling moments for me.

JOHNSON: You've been quite open about how much it means being close to home in Lethbridge now.

VERSTEEG: The biggest thing is when the day's hard, you get to come home and not only do I get to see my kids, but my brother lives here, my parents drive in. It's something I don't take for granted, believe me.

When you're younger, you don't see your parents for eight, nine months at a time. And I did that for 12, 13 years. Now I get to see them weekly. They get to be around their grandchildren. You can't put a price on that.

I'm always thinking hockey, even at home. But home actually being home, you can get it off your mind for at least a little while, because your friends and family are all around you.

I always wondered what it would be like, thought how cool it would be, to play at home, before I retired. But I still wanted to be a good player, a contributing player, not a guy sitting on the bench just cause it allowed me to come home.

JOHNSON: What's the toughest part of the business?

VERSTEEG: Not understanding the business. There are times you think you've got it figured out, but then something happens and you're thrown for a loop. The problem is guys try to understand it and drive themselves crazy.

JOHNSON: At 31, do you relish the whole hockey environment more?

VERSTEEG: Oh yeah. Playing, being a part of it, you never know when your last season might be. This year has been a real eye-opener for me in that sense. So you savour the moments more, try to come to the rink and be happier. Young guys believe it's never going to end. I remember winning that first Cup and thinking 'Hell, I'm gonna do this every year.' And soon enough you realize how stupid you were for thinking that.

JOHNSON: You've played on Cup teams surrounded by the best players on the planet. What maturation stage has this group reached, in your opinion?

VERSTEEG: We need to work hard. We have skill, lots of it, but that's not going to necessarily win us games. If we do that, work, in the right way, we can be a really dangerous team, a team to be reckoned with. I truly believe that. I think we're going to get better as this season goes along, like we did last year.

But I am excited where we can go, the possibilities out there, with the guys we have on our team.

I still think I have a ton of hockey left. I would love to be here a lot longer than two years. But who knows what's going to happen. We'll see.

I know I'd love to win here. Winning, lifting that Cup, is such an unforgettable experience, and I've been lucky enough to do it twice. But winning at home? I can only imagine.

That would the ultimate.





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