Kris Versteeg back in his happy place with Blackhawks
BY MARK LAZERUS Staff Reporter December 2, 2013 7:54PM
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Updated: January 4, 2014 6:26AM
Now that he’s finally got some time in Chicago — a couple of days, at least — Kris Versteeg can finally look for a new place. He’s been living out of hotels for about a month now, dating back to the Florida Panthers’ three-game road trip that preceded his Nov. 14 trade to the Blackhawks, and he’s ready to settle down in his new, yet old, town.
The last time he played for the Blackhawks, he lived downtown. But players tend to gravitate to the suburbs when they get a little older, and with a girlfriend and a dog — a massive Burnese mountain dog, at that — the burbs are a little more appealing than a high-rise condo somewhere in the heart of the city he loves so dearly.
“Starting to feel like home again,” Versteeg said Monday, before leaving Johnny’s IceHouse West to do a little house hunting. “Now I’ve got to go find an actual home.”
It’s hard to imagine any player has ever been as happy to be traded as Versteeg was about three weeks ago. After three years of bouncing around from Toronto to Philadelphia to Florida, Versteeg was not only rescued from the Panthers’ dismal descent into irrelevance, he was traded back to the team he never wanted to leave in the first place — the team that still featured some of his closest friends, the team with which he won a Stanley Cup, the team that averages 7,003 more fans per game than the Panthers.
Thanks to the circus trip, Tuesday’s game against Dallas will be only Versteeg’s second home game since rejoining the Hawks. But the first one, a 5-1 win over San Jose, was the moment when the giddy shellshock of the trade wore off, and Chicago started to feel like home again.
“It suddenly felt like it was just yesterday I was here,” he said. “It was really nice just to see the fans again, and realize how passionate they are and how insanely lucky these guys are to be playing here — and me, to be here again.”
You see Versteeg in the dressing room now and he looks like he never left. Sandwiched in a stall between old running buddy Patrick Kane and the similarly motormouthed Andrew Shaw, Versteeg is his usual chatty, high-octane self.
“He’s a good guy, lot of energy,” Shaw said. “Talks a lot, just like me. So it’s good to have him around.”
But for the first few games back, Versteeg largely kept to himself and the guys he knew best. He had to rein himself in and get the temperature of the room; a lot can change in three years. It didn’t help that his first game back was a humbling 7-2 loss at Nashville, which snapped an eight-game point streak for the Hawks, when all Versteeg wanted to do coming in was not mess with a good thing.
“It was extremely weird at first — it still is, kind of; you almost don’t really believe it,” he said. “I’m a person who likes to joke around and have fun, but you don’t want to come in and be yourself, I guess, right at the start. You kind of want to let it sink in, and meet the guys, and create new friendships, and let it go from there.”
But the Hawks rebounded with that rout of San Jose at the United Center, in which Versteeg had a goal and an assist in front of an adoring crowd, and it’s been all good since then — on the ice, in the room, and on the road. The circus trip couldn’t have come at a better time for him, as it allowed Versteeg to assimilate back into his old inner circle while also getting to know his new teammates.
He’s proven to be exactly what the Hawks wanted him to be when they traded Jimmy Hayes and Dylan Olsen to Florida — a versatile forward who can play in a scoring role or a checking role, with a goal and three assists in nine games (though he’s gone five straight games without a point).
It hasn’t been easy for Versteeg since the Hawks traded him to Toronto in the post-Cup salary purge of 2010. He’s bounced around to three cities in three seasons, dealt with a serious knee injury, and struggled to return to form in Florida, a team going nowhere slowly.
Then everything changed — instantly, and for the better.
“It was such a whirlwind,” he said of the trade. “I’ve had a whirlwind career so far. It just never seems to stop for me.”
Maybe. But with more than two years left on a cap-friendly contract in the city he loves and a team that seems thrilled to have him back, it might finally be time to buy, not rent.