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A closer look at Blackhawks' Versteeg

by Larry Wigge
MONTREAL -- There's a chip-on-his-shoulder confidence that comes out with volume at full blast when you spend a few minutes with Chicago Blackhawks rookie forward Kris Versteeg. And that's not a bad thing.

It's clear that a cursory eye test of talents just doesn't work with most really passionate athletes in sports today. You don't just put a check next to the Lethbridge, Alta., native's name and say he's too small or too weak at 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds. Not when a closer look will show those hands, the puckhandling skills, the shooting ability of a marksman and the never-give-in attitude ... with a bullet.

"I remember going to Providence to scout another player in the American Hockey League one night midway through the 2006-07 season," Blackhawks GM Dale Tallon said recently. "But every time I started to get focused on the guy I went to see, this other kid kept flashing in front of my eyes. It was Kris Versteeg and he was all over the place, the best player on the ice. He was leading the Bruins in scoring ... as a rookie.

"I remember being on the phone with (Bruins GM) Peter Chiarelli a short time later. He was looking for a veteran guy who might be able to help the Bruins in the playoffs. I mentioned Brandon Bochenski (then a 25-year-old journeyman who had shown a knack for scoring goals at the University of North Dakota and at the minor-league level). He said, 'What would you want for him?' And I said, 'How about the Versteeg kid?' "

That's the anatomy of what today looks like a steal of a deal.  Versteeg, on a team with the talent of 2008 Calder Trophy winner Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and Martin Havlat, leads all rookies in points, is second in goals and is second to Kane in points on the Blackhawks. Not bad for a kid who was one of those too-small-to-play kids, a fifth-round pick by Boston in the 2004 Entry Draft.

A long, bumpy road to finally achieving success in the NHL, Kris?

"Well, no, I'd say things were pretty good until I turned 15-16," Versteeg said. "Then, well, the road was suddenly filled with potholes ..."

But the 22-year-old winger, who got his first taste of the NHL last season with 2 goals and 2 assists in 13 games, is one of those never-quit athletes who, when he gets knocked down a couple times, gets right back up.

"I wouldn't change a thing about my adventure," he continued. "The way I look at it, there are always obstacles you have to overcome in life, and seeing someone or something try to knock me down only made me stronger.

"It's funny, but my dad likes to say, 'It's not the size of the dog, but the size of the fight in the dog.' Yeah, I know that's cliché. But he says I've always kind of rebounded from those obstacles with 'piss and vinegar.' "

The first time anyone ever told Versteeg he was too small to make it to the next level? "I was trying out for the Crowsnest Pass Timberwolves (Alberta Junior Hockey League) and the coach told me I didn't have a chance to make his team," he recalled, steaming a little at the thought.

Crowsnest Pass? From there, Versteeg was cut from Team Alberta, a bantam Triple-A team, when he was 15, and failed to make Southern Alberta's Zone team one year later.

"I was a kid who knew I was a good player and that I was caught up in too much politics at that level," said Versteeg, who pointed out that the coach in question basically ruined the program that is no longer in Crowsnest Pass. Then he eased the pain of being cut in a fit of rage. "Not making it left a pretty bitter taste in my mouth, so, when I got home I burned my jersey in a fire pit.

"To me, it's all a part of going out there with a chip on your shoulder and proving those people wrong."

There's nothing unconventional about Versteeg. He's bright, loquacious and strong-willed ... with a ton of talent and a great stand-up-for-himself attitude.

The strength comes from his parents, Roy, a tractor salesman, and Marilyn, a fourth-grade teacher who runs a fine-arts program that has put on some plays and musicals in Lethbridge. Roy got the hockey started for Kris when he gave him a mini-stick when he was only 2. He used to always play roller hockey and street hockey when he was a kid, where he worked a lot on stickhandling. The athletic genes? Well, they probably come from his mom's mom, who is still famous in Alberta for her Senior Olympics feats in curling and lawn bowling at the age of 70.

Versteeg remembered that his family had enough to get by when he was growing up — plus, his parents made sure their boys had the opportunity to play sports and make friends.

"Two people I really owe a lot to were my grandparents, who were always there for my brothers and myself -- especially when my parents were divorced," Versteeg said, speaking of Morris and Joanne Versteeg. He also went on to name the coaches who have had a big hand in showing him the way -- from Rod White, Paul Strang and Dwayne Osberg to Scott Gordon, his coach at AHL Providence who now coaches the New York Islanders.

"Scott Gordon was tremendous for me," Versteeg said. "He really helped kick-start my career again after playing a year on defense my last year of junior."

His biggest moment? No, it wasn't being drafted.

"I wasn't rated very highly in juniors, so it wasn't a certainty that I would even be drafted in 2004," he explained. "But a couple of days before the Draft, three or four teams told me they might take me. Having been through that kind of politics before, I stayed home and went to my safe graduation ... never even gave the Draft a thought at the post-graduation party.

"The next morning my mom called to tell me that Boston had drafted me. She was so happy she was crying."

Family and friends. They all showed up when Kris made his NHL debut in Calgary last season.

"That was the best day of my life," Versteeg said. "Looking up into the stands and seeing my mom, my dad, my brother and grandparents and all my friends. It was a special day that hit home in a big way that I had finally made it."

The testimonials to Versteeg's being among the NHL's Rookie of the Year candidates came from far and wide.

"I'm not surprised at what he's doing in Chicago," said David Krejci, Boston's second-year center who played on the same line with Versteeg in Providence. "He's skilled enough to play with anybody -- and the Blackhawks definitely have the talent for him to show off his talent.

"He's got really good hands and is good with the puck. He's really good at finding guys on the ice. And he's very shifty."

"He's got a great personality. I didn't know anything about him until I took over as coach this season. The first thing I noticed was the energy he brings to the rink," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "He's got good speed and real good patience and vision with the puck."

"I wouldn't change a thing about my adventure. The way I look at it there are always obstacles you have to overcome in life -- and seeing someone or something try to knock me down only made me stronger." -- Kris Versteeg
And starting the season with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews was surreal.

"He's smart and real quick -- a lot like Kaner," Toews said. "He has great hands and he plays with his head up, which says to me he has a lot of confidence in his game."

"Yeah, he does kinda remind me of myself a little bit in the way he plays," added Kane. "You get tired of hearing the 'too small' thing. I know I did. Kris wasn't a highly-touted rookie, but he has proven everyone wrong and he has proven he belongs in the NHL."

The adventure, the bumps along the road, the potholes ... all the way from Crowsnest Pass to Chicago. It's a great story.

And all you had to do is check under the hood to see what makes Kris Versteeg tick.

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