Friday, January 13, 2012

Versteeg Still Sticking to His Jagr Comparison

Competitive balance.

That's what it comes down to when a player is traded. How does he match up the player he was traded for?

When Kris Versteeg was sent by the Philadelphia Flyers to the Florida Panthers, the 25-year-old, fourth-year pro from Lethbridge, Alta., wondered aloud, "How does one respond when you've been traded for second-  (or second-round in 2012) and third-round picks in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft?"

It's no secret Jaromir Jagr came to mind.

"I was actually traded 10 minutes after Jaromir Jagr was brought into Philadelphia," explained Versteeg. "I was traded to make room for Jagr under the salary cap.

"Hey, he's a player I love watching."

Reaching for a giant comparison, a Hall of Famer, but that a little bit of a reach, don't you think?

GM Dale Tallon, who had Versteeg at Chicago, where he won a Stanley Cup in 2009-10, wouldn't dare say Versteeg's a cocky kid. He laughed at the comparison.

"He's got some spunk. He's got a fiery personality," Tallon recalled. "He has unbelievable skill. He's got a great personality. There's something about him I really like.

"And his numbers last season weren't bad. He was hurt. He had double hernia surgery."

During the 2009-10, Versteeg had 21 goals combined with Toronto and Philadelphia. With a double hernia surgery.

"I got a chance to see what life was like on the other side -- from the team against us in the Stanley Cup finals," Versteeg said of the Chicago opponent, the Flyers. "From the moment I got to Philadelphia, I had to deal with terrible back pains.

"Dr. Myers found two holes in my stomach. It was a blessing to find out what was wrong. If I had never gone to Philly, they might never have found what was wrong with me."

Surgery out of the way, you can now see why Versteeg is playing so well. Kris represents one of the good stories in Florida, playing on the No. 1 line with Stephen Weiss and Tomas Fleishman. Clearly, it's the best scoring position he's ever been in.

At the halfway point of the season, Versteeg was leading Florida in scoring with 17 goal and 22. Better yet, he was a plus-11 and had four game-winning goals.

"Kris has been a big offensive threat for us," said coach Kevin Dineen. "Dale (Tallon) knew him from Chicago. And I'm good friends with Joel Quenneville. I got some real good reports, tipping me off on all of the intangibles and well as the production."

Not bad for a kid who was one of those too-small-to-play kids who was a fifth-round pick, 134th overall, by Boston in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

There's a chip-on-his-shoulder confidence that comes out with volume at full blast when you spend a few minutes with the Panthers' Versteeg. And I like it. He's clearly one of the most passionate athletes in sports today.

You don't just put a check next to the Lethbridge, Alberta, native's name and say he's too small or too weak at 5-10, 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.

Tallon recalls Versteeg when he was in the Bruins minor leagues. "I remember going to Providence to scout another player in the American Hockey League one night midway through the 2006-07 season. 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. Kris was all over the place, the best player on the ice. He was leading the Bruins in scoring ... as a rookie.

"A few phone calls later, I remember being on the cell with (Bruins G.M.) Peter Chiarelli. 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 of 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?' "

Long bumpy road to finally achieving success in the NHL?

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

And his lack of size?

"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 cliche. 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," Kris 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 when 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 one of those I'm-mad-as-hell-and-I'm-not-going-to-take-it-anymore 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 Kris Versteeg. He's bright, loquacious and strong-willed ... with a ton on talent and a great stand-up-for-himself attitude.

The strength comes from his parents, Roy, a tractor salesman, and Marilyn, who is a Grade 4 teacher who runs a fine arts program that has put on some fine plays and musicals in Lethbridge. Roy got the hockey started for Kris when he gave him a min-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 mom's mom, who was is still famous in Alberta for her senior olympics feats in curling and lawn bowling at 70 years young.

Versteeg laughs when he compares his game to that of Peter Forsberg, two-time winner of Stanley Cups with the Colorado Avalanche. But it's the chip on his shoulders.

Kris 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.

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."

The adventure, the bumps along the road, the potholes ... all the way from Crowsnest Pass to Chicago, then Toronto, Philadelphia and now Florida. 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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