“Sorry it was such a slow news day and you had to call me,” Kris Versteeg said over the phone Wednesday afternoon. This guy gets it. Already. The disadvantaged kid from North Lethbridge with the chip on his shoulder who made it to the NHL against all odds, won two Stanley Cups and earned more than $28 million officially retired earlier this week. He’ll spend Phase I of his retirement in suburban Toronto, coaching his sons in hockey and as a hockey analyst for Sportsnet and he’ll almost certainly be great at both of them.
Kris Versteeg has had a career in television waiting for him almost from the time he became a full-time NHLer in 2008. Certainly by the time he won his first Cup with the Chicago Blackhawks the next season, the hockey world was beginning to see what a unique character he was and how easily he expressed himself. That made him popular in every market in which he played. He was one of those rare players who was a go-to quote machine while being a valuable contributor on the ice. In today’s NHL, those two things are almost always mutually exclusive.
So Sportsnet probably has a future star on its hands depending on how far Versteeg actually wants to take this. The thing that appeals to him most about a multi-media career is that it will allow him to keep his name in NHL circles and give him the time to coach his sons, four-year-old Jaxson and three-year-old Maddox, as they make their way into minor hockey in Whitby, Ont. Poor mook. If he though he was busy when he played, wait until he finds out what minor hockey has in store for him.
“I played with so many good players and played for so many good coaches,” Versteeg said. “If they play hockey and enjoy it, I feel like it would be a disservice to them by not trying to give them all the great stuff I’ve learned. If you’re a coach or a GM at the junior level it’s 365 days a year, but TV gives you the flexibility that you can still be around with your kids. Hopefully, it goes well. That’s the starting plan. Obviously, things can change.”
One thing that has changed since Versteeg played is both the cost and commitment it requires to raise an elite hockey player. Little Jaxson and Maddox won’t have to worry about that because their father has both incredible wealth and an abundance of free time, the two commodities that give young players such a competitive advantage. Much more than good bloodlines, that’s why you see so many sons of former NHL players following in their footsteps. By his own admission, Versteeg would not have been able to play hockey at the Triple-A level if he were in minor hockey today.
Versteeg grew up in a working-class part of Lethbridge. His father ran a candy business that was wiped out when a Costco came into town and his parents divorced. There were times when his grandparents had to intervene to help make ends meet and keep him and his brothers playing hockey. “Both my mother and father have said there’s a zero percent chance I could have played hockey today,” Versteeg said. “And my Grandma says to this day that the reason they had to step up was basically either put us or in hockey or she says, literally, ‘probably you guys would all be in jail,’ and I don’t even think she was kidding.”
Versteeg had a lot of people to thank when he retired and one of them was a man by the name of Trevor Hardy, who is the strength and conditioning coach with Versteeg’s hometown Lethbridge Hurricanes. Back in the day, Hardy was training minor hockey players in the area and Versteeg sought out his services when he was in his teens. “When I was about 15, my father said, ‘You’re fat and out of shape and you’d better start running,’ ” Versteeg said. “So I started running on my own, but all the other hockey players were going to Trevor. We had to tell him there was no way I could afford this, but he told me I could train with him for free and if I ever made the NHL, I could pay him back. He took a shot on me as a kid.”
Chances are, you’ll be seeing and hearing a lot more of Kris Versteeg. The plan was to integrate Versteeg into Sportsnet’s playoff coverage before the NHL season was put on pause. The biggest problem for Versteeg when it comes to working on television is that he’s come to realize he usually has more to say than the time usually allows. That’s never a bad thing. “Those are little learning curves where repetition will help,” Versteeg said. “I’m looking forward to it.”
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