The spring of 2004 was a pretty awesome time to be a Calgary Flames fan of any kind. To be one whose 18th birthday dovetailed with the team’s amazing run to the Cup final, though, probably meant you were in the upper tier in terms of people having the time of their life.
That was the situation for Kris Versteeg, a Lethbridge, Alberta boy who’d played two years with his hometown Hurricanes in the Western League and who was on the verge of beginning his own big-league career, starting with being drafted by the Boston Bruins that June.
At the time, though, Versteeg had only one NHL allegiance and it was to the same Flames team he shone for on Thursday night despite a 3-2 Game 1 loss to the Anaheim Ducks. The only difference between Versteeg’s devotion to Calgary now versus then is when the Flames score today, all he has to sip on is a little water.
“I was a part of the Red Mile,” Versteeg says with a Prairie-sized grin. “I just turned 18 [the legal consumption age in Alberta] and had a couple shots to celebrate a Martin Gelinas goal, I remember, when he played Detroit.”
Gelinas, who scored monster overtime goals for the ’04 Flames to eliminate the Vancouver Canucks in Round 1 and the Red Wings in Round 2, is now an assistant coach with Calgary. Versteeg is one of the few players—along with Troy Brouwer—on the bench with playoff experience comparable to Gelinas’, which is just one reason the left winger is such an important part of the club right now.
“Some of the things he said in the meeting prior to the series have already come into effect,” says Flames coach Glen Gulutzan.
Versteeg’s wealth of knowledge, of course, has been built up over the course of a post-season career that now goes 90 games deep. He is a two-time Stanley Cup champion thanks to triumphs in 2010 and 2015 with the Chicago Blackhawks. He’s also been to the playoffs as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers, Florida Panthers and Los Angeles Kings. When the man speaks, Calgary’s sizeable contingent of relatively inexperienced players listen. Among the things Versteeg has emphasized is being prepared for the ferocious power momentum has in the second season and the ability to steady yourself and re-group.
“He even talked about the media and owning your game,” Gulutzan said. “Those are valuable words for those younger guys.”
Versteeg’s place on the team came about when he signed a one-year deal with the Flames on the same day last October that he was released from a professional tryout offer with the Edmonton Oilers.
“It was kind of a no-brainer,” says Versteeg. “You get to go home and play in front of friends and family.”
Anybody who assumes the fact he’s now toiled for a number of clubs means Versteeg can’t cut it should review the footage of Game 1. Calgary’s first goal came from Sean Monahan, but all he had to do was re-direct a perfect pass from Versteeg while the Flames were on the man advantage. In the second frame, Versteeg helped Calgary take the lead with a highlight-worthy feed to Sam Bennett, who one-timed the backhand pass home from just outside the crease.
“When he has the puck on his stick you’ve got to expect a good pass,” says Monahan.
If Versteeg can keep dishing them out, it could make a world of difference for the Flames in what still figures to be a long series with Anaheim. The third line of Bennett between Versteeg on the left and Alex Chiasson on the right has its hands full lining up against Anaheim’s third trio of Antoine Vermette with Corey Perry and Ondrej Kase, but asserted itself well in the opening contest.
“That’s the big difference in a lot of series, is the depth scoring,” Versteeg says. “That can sway a series one way or another.”
He would know—and still knows how to get it done.