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‘He was one of my closest friends’: Rockford IceHogs react to Kris Versteeg’s departure

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Rockford coach Derek King says there’s no rush to name a new captain.

Nathan Vestal/Rockford IceHogs

ROCKFORD, Ill. — Rockford IceHogs head coach Derek King plans to name a new team captain or assistant captain after Kris Versteeg left the team Sunday.

The 33-year-old Versteeg, who won two Stanley Cup championships with the Blackhawks, came to a mutual agreement with the IceHogs to terminate his contract after hitting a mental wall in recent weeks following injuries. His departure leaves the IceHogs without a captain, but King doesn’t plan to elevate assistants Matthew Highmore or Tyler Sikura to the role just yet.

“No, not right away,” King said about naming a new captain. “We’ll talk about it as a staff. We’ve got plenty of guys that can probably step up and do it. We’ll see whether we’re going to do that or just add a third assistant. I like having a captain, but we had a captain and now to replace him... I’m not 100 percent against it, but I’m not 100 percent sure.

“Highmore is a character guy that could step up. Tyler Sikura was even on my radar before we got Versteeg. That’s something I’ll have to talk to (Blackhawks vice president of hockey operations Mark Bernard) and staff about. We’ll figure something out, if that’s the way we want to go.”

Sikura, who is tied with his younger brother Dylan Sikura for the team lead in goals with six, is already planning to step up whether he’s named captain or not.

“It’s something that I’ve dealt with throughout the course of my career in terms of being a leader and wearing a letter,” Tyler said. “I try not to change as a result of situations. Maybe I’ll have to be the guy who addresses the team instead of (Versteeg) or something like that. Ultimately, I think you’re chosen to be a leader for what you’re already doing. I’m just going to continue doing that and obviously I’m going to be a big part of that.”

Tyler Sikura said it was “pretty incredible” to play with Versteeg for everyone on the team, and felt Versteeg’s short stint with Rockford left an impression on the younger players.

“He came here and was unbelievable with all the kids,” Sikura said. “Unbelievable leader in the room. Even though his stay wasn’t too long his impact has definitely lasted and helped us get to the team we are here today.”

Brandon Hagel was one of the younger players Versteeg bonded with on and off the ice, and said receiving the news about Versteeg leaving the team was “upsetting.”

“He was one of my closest friends,” Hagel said. “For him to leave like that... I mean he’s got to do what he’s got to do. It’s just part of the game. It sucks that it happened, but that’s the way it goes.”

Hagel’s connection with Versteeg started before his time with the IceHogs as the two stayed had the same billett family in Red Deer during their respective WHL careers. In Rockford, Hagel learned how to play the pro game and how to adjust to life as a first-year pro from Versteeg.

“He’s helped me. He’s pushed me. I sat close to him in the room,” Hagel said. “He’s just one of those guys that teaches you how to be a pro and does everything the right way.”

Hagel didn’t want to focus too much on Versteeg’s departure, and instead his attention is on the IceHogs’ upcoming three-game Texas road trip which starts Saturday against the Stars.

“We’re early on in the season and we’ve got to move on,” Hagel said. “We’ve got a bunch of leaders that need to step up, even younger guys. He was definitely a huge part of our team, but you can’t drown on it. You’ve got to move forward and other guys have to step up.”