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Friday, February 18, 2011
'Playing nice' with Kris Versteeg

Last June, Kris Versteeg was part of a Blackhawks team that spoiled the Flyers' magical run in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Less than one year later, he's wearing Philly orange and black, trying to help them avenge that loss.

On Monday, Versteeg was traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Flyers to play for his third team in less than a year. So it goes in today's NHL, where how teams juggle players under the salary cap is as important as how they juggle them on the ice. So how does a guy go straight from putting hits on the opposition to being the opposition? Versteeg says it's simply a matter of relating to the player who he's lining up against -- no matter what sweater he's wearing.

"You know, you're all hockey players and you're all professionals," he said. "People get moved around so much, you just try to make friends."

Make friends?! Even with a guy like the Flyers' Chris Pronger? He's one of the most hated players in the league for his childish taunting and his disregard for unspoken rules of the game (like snagging the pucks from the Flyers' net in his team's losing finals efforts, denying the goal-scoring Blackhawks mementos from their wins).

"Pronger is just a hockey player," Versteeg said nonchalantly. "He's gonna do whatever it takes to get under the other guy's skin and he's great at it. I think it's totally different, now, to be on his side."

OK, so you can forgive the agitator now that he won't be agitating you. But what about all the hits, punches and (in the case of the Vancouver Canucks) hair pulls? How do you join a team after you've jumped in on a line brawl against it, or after you've ripped it to the press in the locker room? Is all that talk of a rivalry more for the fans than the players? Versteeg says no.

"I mean, when it comes to the Canucks, like last year's playoffs, there is a lot of hatred. It is a hated rivalry. But if you're asked to suit up for that team, then it's different. You know that everyone is a professional and you're all doing the same job."

Remembering that playing in the NHL is a job can help fans understand the "play nice" attitude that Versteeg and his peers must have. Working for a team is just like working for a company; you're hired to do your best to help it succeed. And a trade is like a transfer; whether the difference is a new desk or a new jersey, you owe your boss -- whoever he or she is on any given day -- your best. Of course, some trades are easier to take than others. For Versteeg, that first day with the Flyers was admittedly awkward.

"I still kind of feel like I'm in the twilight zone," he said Wednesday afternoon, one day after his first game with Philly. "You know, [the Flyers] are a really tight locker room and I could tell that when I first walked in, on that very first day. They're really close and they've got a really good thing going, so I don't want to disrupt that. I just wanna go in and play my best hockey and try to not mess up what they're already doing."

Imagining Versteeg trying to blend in would make anyone who knows him laugh. This is the kid who famously rapped Fergie's "Glamorous" to me in the Blackhawks' locker room as a rookie, then later freestyled his own version of LMFAO's "Yes" to a crowd of 2 million on stage at the Hawks' Stanley Cup parade. Like Marisa Tomei's character said in "My Cousin Vinny" in a perfect deadpan -- "Oh yeah, you blend."

While a softer, quieter Versteeg is trying to transition seamlessly to a Flyers team that leads the Eastern Conference with 81 points, his former teammates in Chicago are back in 11th, fighting just to make the playoffs. I asked him whether landing on arguably the league's best team dulls the pain of getting traded by the Hawks just a few days before his day with the Stanley Cup last summer.

"I think there will always be a sort of 'what if?' as far as wishing we could have kept that team together," he said. "There wasn't a guy in there that wanted to leave, not one guy. But we all knew that it was gonna be tough to keep everyone with the salary cap."

Versteeg said nearly all of his old teammates texted him when news broke that he'd been sent to Philly. Two of the guys, Patrick Sharp and Ben Eager (now with the Sharks), used to play for the Flyers; he said they let him know what a quality organization he had joined. It's clear that most players these days know quite well what it's like to land on a new team. In order to survive, they've gotta play nice -- at least once the final horn sounds.