- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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Kris Versteeg looked slightly less dazed at the Blackhawks' convention Friday night than team president John McDonough did in stepping out onto the balcony of the Grand Ballroom at the Chicago Hilton and hearing the unfamiliar boos from the fans below.
Surely, Versteeg expected to be asked for his first public comments on the missed-deadline controversy which he had been unwittingly thrust into in the past few weeks. But at 23 years old, last year's Calder Trophy finalist hardly was prepared to talk about his former general manager getting fired because of it.
The now-infamous snafu that could have turned Versteeg, Cam Barker and several other teammates from restricted into unrestricted free agents appeared to be minimized when the team re-signed them with significant raises but without much incident.
But then team GM Dale Tallon was fired and reassigned; former Hawks star and Tallon loyalist Marty Havlat leveled accusations of sabotage to make the Tallon firing easier to justify; and the next thing you knew McDonough was getting booed at his own convention.
While McDonough had said he expected some tough moments in the question-and-answer sessions Saturday, you got the feeling that was not what he expected.
Nor did Versteeg expect to be asked about it all. Several times on Friday, Versteeg said he didn't think he was supposed to talk about Tallon. What did emerge, however, was the rather wholesome image of a team that truly wanted to stay together, and a sport in which loyalty still matters.
While no one could have blamed Versteeg and Barker for thinking only of what was to be gained financially from taking advantage of the Hawks' error, you believed Versteeg when he looked genuinely perplexed by the very suggestion.
"I didn't even think about it that way," he said. "I went into the whole situation wanting to be a Chicago Blackhawk, so the whole time the first thing on my agenda was not to go out and sign with someone else, it was to get a deal done with Chicago. I don't think we thought anything about this whole unrestricted free agency. We both wanted to be Chicago Blackhawks, and that's why we both ultimately signed."
Granted, the Hawks headed off any trouble by signing Versteeg for three years and $9.25 million after he earned $490,000 last season. He stood to earn a 10 percent raise had he been given the qualifying offer on time.
"I kind of watched it from the background, I really did," Versteeg insisted. "We didn't talk about it much. It definitely wasn't on the front page of our agendas.
"We're just excited to be a part of this team. We had a lot of great chemistry last year. We clicked so well together on and off the ice. There's no reason we'd ever want to leave Chicago."
Those sentiments were not taken for granted by team chairman Rocky Wirtz.
"I think what was lost in all the excitement of the deadline is that we have players who could have told their agents, 'I don't care what you do,' or could have gone to the press and had their own press conference," Wirtz said.
"We have players who wanted to come back here, they didn't stick us in any way with anything that's unreasonable. We paid, in our humble opinion, market value for what they did but there's always a team out there who will sign you to more, who have more salary-cap room. They would've found a way to do it if they wanted to. So I think it said a lot for each one of those players who wanted to stay with the Hawks."
Hawks coach Joel Quenneville said he was happy the two will remain in Blackhawks uniforms.
"You never know when you're going through that process. The July 1 deadline can be tricky in a lot of ways," he said. "Steeger and Barks, they're both very useful in a lot of ways. I thought they both had very good years. [And] I think they know it's a pretty good situation here. I think that could be part of it. I think we should all feel fortunate being part of the Blackhawks right now."
Isn't that the truth?
Kris Versteeg was in the middle of the restricted free-agent snafu, but said he never thought about leaving.