By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
Copyright © 2005
ESTERO, Fla. – Being part of an extended family on a hockey team has taken on a few different meanings for Florida Everblades forward Kris Vernarsky.
When the soft-spoken native of Warren, Mich., was picked up by the Everblades in late November after being released by the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins, he was reunited in the ECHL with a couple of guys he had played with and against in his younger days.
Forward Damian Surma, who hails from Lincoln Park, Mich., and rookie goaltender Craig Kowalski, who is from Clinton Township, Mich., were happy to welcome Vernarsky to Southwest Florida. They and the rest of the Everblades also welcomed Vernarsky’s wife and high school sweetheart, Sara, and their 19-month old son, Kaden.
Vernarsky and his teammates left Wednesday night for Charlotte, N.C., where they will try to end their best-of-seven American Conference Finals series against the Checkers in Game 6 on Friday night at 7 at Cricket Arena. Florida leads the series, 3-2.
“We’ve known each for what seems like forever,” says Surma, who played with Vernarsky most recently in the Ontario Hockey League with the Plymouth (Mich.) Whalers. “I met him when I was 12 and he was 11. It’s still weird to me seeing him as a dad. He told me that and I was like, no way, this kid I’ve known since he was 11 years old. He’s a year younger than me, but he definitely loves his son. I’ve never seen one guy be so happy to have a family.”
That love for his son has motivated him since Kaden was born on Sept. 11, 2003. Vernarsky, 23, only got to see him for that one day before he had to head back to Providence for training camp. That was the year he appeared in 14 National Hockey League games with the Boston Bruins and scored one goal.
“Since he’s been born I haven’t really seen him the whole time, so every chance I get I’m with him, even if it’s just a little picture in my stall on the road or something like that, I cherish,” Vernarsky says. “It reminds me that he’s there and he’s mine and he’s a healthy baby and thank God for that. He does motivate me because he’s mine. I’ve got to take care of him so I’ve got to do my job so it makes me play a little bit harder.”
His Michigan roots play a big role in how Vernarsky approaches hockey and how he approaches life, which is why he has been successful at just about every level. Everblades team president/general manager Craig Brush was familiar with him from Plymouth, so when he became available just before Thanksgiving there was no hesitation on Brush’s part to sign him.
As soon as he joined the team on Nov. 24, Vernarsky blended right in. In his first game after having not played in three weeks, he along with wingers Brandon Coalter and Greg Hornby were the lone bright spot singled out by head coach Gerry Fleming in Florida’s 5-1 loss to the Greenville Grrrowl.
“I knew a handful of guys when I came here, but it doesn’t matter if I didn’t know anybody,” says Vernarsky, who in 53 regular-season games with Florida scored 36 points (16 goals, 20 assists). “The guys here are great and we’re so tight a group. This is the first time that I’ve actually lived in the same apartment complex as everyone else. I don’t know if other teams do that but I think that’s kind of cool.”
It wasn’t until he got to Southwest Florida that he got to spend more significant time with his wife and son. Taking a cue from 28-year-old veteran forward Brad Church, Vernarsky brings his son into the locker room after wins. Church has two sons who have become part of the landscape, and his wife, Kristin, along with some of the other wives have helped.
Sara has gotten used to the life of a hockey wife. Even though they only got married last July, she had traveled with Vernarsky’s parents overseas to Russia and the Czech Republic to watch Kris play in the World Juniors in 1998, and knows all about the ups and downs.
“It has its down parts but it’s also exciting at the same time,” Sara says, “because you always know he’s coming back.”
Throughout the playoffs, Vernarsky has taken on his different roles with the same sense of responsibility he takes on as a young father. Up until Tuesday night against the Charlotte Checkers in Game 5 of the best-of-seven American Conference Finals, he was the center on Fleming’s third line.
Through two-plus rounds, Vernarsky played with five different wingers. He had to step up on face-offs in the absence of regular centerman Brent McDonald, who returned to the lineup Tuesday. With McDonald back, Vernarsky moved to left wing and didn’t miss a beat.
“I think his biggest strengths are his intelligence. He just sees the ice,” Fleming says. “He’s smart, he always has his stick in a good position. He’s playing physical and when he’s skating he’s really on his game. He’s quick, he creates some offense, he’s good defensively.”
Having accomplished his dream of playing in the NHL, and now experiencing the wonder of being a father and a husband, there’s only one thing left for Vernarsky to do: win a championship. And he would like to do it with none other than his boyhood friends, Surma and Kowalski.
As a 14-year-old on Team USA, Vernarsky lost in the finals to the Compuware team the other two were on in the North American Hockey League, then with Surma as a teammate in Plymouth he lost in the OHL finals two years in a row to Barrie and Ottawa. Everblades goalie Rob Zepp, who is on call-up with the AHL’s Lowell Lock Monsters, was the goalie on those teams.
“I’ve been close to winning a championship, but with this team, as tight as we are, it would be great to be able to do it this year,” Vernarsky says.
If that happens, Vernarsky’s place in the Everblades family will forever be secure.