-- It was the one thing Kris Versteeg
had been looking forward to doing ever since he noticed his Florida Panthers
were making a trip here this season.
The former Chicago Blackhawks
forward always likes seeing his old buddies, of course, but the one thing he was most fired up about was looking into the rafters of the United Center and seeing the 2010 Stanley Cup banner hanging there.
It's a permanent reminder of what that team accomplished in bringing this city its first Cup title in 49 years, with Versteeg playing an understated, yet important role.
"That was the No. 1 thing I wanted to see," said Versteeg, who peeked his head out from the visitor's bench before Friday's morning skate to catch a glimpse of the banner, as well as the Madhouse on Madison itself -- which he hadn't seen since winning Game 5 of the 2010 Cup Final here. "I didn't get to see the banner raised last year, and it's the first time I get to see the banner -- so it was a pretty neat experience just seeing what you accomplished with a team."
"I didn't get to see the banner raised last year, and it's the first time I get to see the banner -- so it was a pretty neat experience just seeing what you accomplished with a team." -- Kris Versteeg
Sporting longer blond locks than the clean-cut look he had as a Blackhawk, the 25-year old Versteeg expressed a little bit of remorse for the events that led to the dismantling of that team's roster because of salary-cap issues.
The Hawks were forced to keep a "core group" of stars whom they inked to long-term contracts, and that left a number of good players out of the mix -- either traded away or not re-signed. Versteeg was one of the first to go -- after Dustin Byfuglien
, Ben Eager
, Brent Sopel
and a prospect first were sent to the former Atlanta Thrashers.
Versteeg was dealt to Toronto for speedy young forward Viktor Stalberg
-- who's playing on the top line now -- and prospects. Versteeg then was dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers
, who subsequently traded him to the Panthers in the offseason.
Amid all that moving around, he never got the opportunity to come back to the United Center to soak in that 2010 title for himself. He did return for a Cup ring ceremony in Chicago prior to last season, but wasn't at the home opener when his friends still on the Hawks took the banner from a collection of Hawks alums from the 1961 Cup championship team and skated it over to be hung.
"It was really sad that I didn't get to be here for it, or that a lot of guys didn't get to be here for it," Versteeg said Friday. "Twelve of us, I think, didn't get to see it raised, so I think it's special anytime any guy who was on that team comes back."
Finally he can include himself on that list. The lone exception now is former Hawks goalie Cristobal Huet
, who is playing in Europe for a second straight season despite being paid by Chicago for the last season of his contract -- which was deemed too pricey.
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Not seeing the banner raised wasn't the only regret Versteeg expressed Friday. He brought up the current defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins
, who largely kept their roster intact because their salary cap situation wasn't as dire as Chicago's.
After a month-long "Cup hangover," to start the season, Boston has been one of the League's best teams and is locked in a battle for first in the Northeast Division and Eastern Conference. A quick look at the Bruins' roster shows talented depth in a forward rotation with a number of guys in their prime. The Bruins also have a stout defense and outstanding goaltending between veteran starter Tim Thomas
and outstanding backup Tuukka Rask
Versteeg looks back on what happened in Chicago -- which lost the goalie the Hawks won the Cup with plus a collection of talented, budding young stars -- and sighs at what could have been. He and his teammates knew right after they won the Cup that they'd be ripped apart, but that doesn't make it any easier to think about, even now.
"You always think about where a team could've gone," said Versteeg, who has scored 17 goals and plays right wing on the Panthers' top line with Stephen Weiss
and Tomas Fleischmann
. "Obviously, you look at Boston and the confidence they gained as a team after they won and how much better players get as they get older. We were still young and were separated at a young age."
He quickly caught himself, however, realizing that what happened can't be changed and time only moves in one direction.
"Obviously there are a lot of things you still think about, but you've got to move on and play wherever you are now," Versteeg said. "I'm a Panther now and I've had nothing but great things going on for myself here and as a team here. I'm excited about that."
Enough to where the emotions that banner stirred inside of him weren't really about sadness Friday, but more about accomplishment -- fulfilling a dream that drives all young hockey players.
The last time Versteeg even was in this building was Sunday, June 6 -- when he scored one of Chicago's goals in a 7-4 rout to take a 3-2 series lead against the Flyers. He played just one more game in a Blackhawks uniform, as Chicago won Game 6 on Patrick Kane
's overtime goal. After "rapping" at the memorable victory celebration downtown -- attended by an estimated 2 million people -- Versteeg and his unique personality were gone.
On Friday, it was almost like he'd never left -- right down to his joking with the Chicago media and starting the day by bringing a baby gift to injured Hawks forward Patrick Sharp
, whose wife had the couple's first child in December.
Versteeg wasn't the only former Blackhawks player now returning to Chicago as a Panther -- four of them actually hoisted the Cup in 2010, with Jack Skille
being one of the Black Aces on the practice squad -- but he was the only one who hadn't seen the reminder of their ultimate hockey achievement hanging over the ice.
"It was very emotional," Versteeg said. "It hits home. You put so much time and effort as an individual -- your entire life just to get to the NHL and then to win a Stanley Cup … it's emotional looking at that thing, in more ways than one, actually. It was pretty special to finally see it."