Chris Chelios was a true original
Chris Chelios was the defenseman you wanted on the ice with a game at stake
His long career and achievements make him arguably the best US-born player
He was stealthy, hard-headed and edgy, and crazy in the best possible way
The best American-born hockey player has officially retired.
The best guess was that it would take a stake to the heart or a gun to the head to make him hang up his gear for good, but all Chris Chelios really needed was a press conference.
Chelios told the assembled media in Detroit that he loved every minute of his 26 NHL seasons -- he didn't seem to love them so much when Red Wings coach Mike Babcock wasn't using him in the power play -- and he apologized to fans of other teams for doing terrible things to their players all these years, an innate approach to the game for which he had never said he was sorry in his life until Tuesday.
There were more skilled defensemen and more physical defensemen. A few made a better first pass, and many skated with more grace. But in the last minute of a one-goal game, your team up or down, there probably was no blueliner for much of the past quarter of a century that you wanted on the ice more. Chelios would have sacrificed anything to make sure the puck cleared the zone or got through to the net. He was crazy, and I mean that in the best possible way.
So, was he really the best American-born player?
You can certainly make the case, as I do, even though he was not as elegant a defenseman as Brian Leetch or as prolific a point man as Phil Housley. Mike Modano and Pat LaFontaine rank as the top forwards -- Brett Hull, who represented Team USA, was born in Ontario -- but neither spanned as many generations as Chelios, although Modano is soldiering on with the Red Wings next season. And the length of Chelios' career combined with ridiculous stubbornness and soaring achievement puts him on the highest step of an impressive ladder.
Chelios played on three Stanley Cup winners and on four Olympic teams, starting with 1984 in Sarajevo where he ended up walking around the lovely city in a Sports Illustrated jacket. (Chelios, who was not an especially gracious loser, was so upset with Team USA's performance, starting with a loss to Canada prior to the opening ceremony, that he traded his Olympic team jacket for the company garb worn by SI's esteemed hockey writer, E.M. Swift.)
The feisty defenseman would win three Norris Trophies while playing a startling 1,651 games, then another record 266 in the playoffs. Years ago, an NHL player looked forward to his 400th game because that total would fully vest him for his pension. Chelios played 400 games with three different teams: Montreal, Chicago and Detroit, for whom he will now work as a hockey advisor although given his tough-guy stance with the NHL Players Association, it would not be shocking to see him drift in that direction once the PA puts the finishing touches on the current restructuring that will take it into the next CBA negotiations.
Chelios joined the Canadiens shortly after his Sarajevo disappointment and looked NHL-ready right from the start, flourishing with a strong playoff run before winding up second in the Calder Trophy voting to Mario Lemieux in his first full season. He was brash on the ice, so dynamic that coaches occasionally would throw him on the wing for a few shifts. He played 402 games with the Canadiens, although it should have been his entire career.
In the summer of 1990, general manager Serge Savard was being pressured by upper management to move Chelios because, well, in its estimation, the defenseman was not exactly a choirboy off the ice. Denis Savard, whom the Canadiens had passed on a decade earlier to choose Doug Wickenheiser No. 1 in the entry draft, was a local darling who seemed to have at least some miles left on his undersized chassis. With an old-fashioned Chelios-Savard straight-up swap all but set -- a deal that favored the Blackhawks given the relative ages of the players - Chicago coach/GM Mike Keenan called owner Bill Wirtz, who doted on Savard, to inform him the deal was ready to go. Wirtz didn't want to make the trade, but finally relented, telling Keenan, "We need to get more."
And Chicago got it. Incredibly the Canadiens added a second-round draft pick to make the deal.
Savard never recreated the magic in his hometown despite being part of Montreal's 1993 Stanley Cup team, but Chelios surely did when he returned to his. He spent part of his formative years in Chicago and settled in brilliantly, helping the Hawks to the Cup final in 1992, eventually succeeding Dirk Graham as captain and winning his second and third Norris Trophies there. He became the foundation of a franchise that was still gloriously relevant in that era.
Chelios loved Chicago. And the last place a Blackhawk captain wanted to be was in hated Detroit. But when the Red Wings offered Anders Eriksson and two first-round draft choices in 1999, Chelios found himself in a hotel across Jefferson Avenue from Joe Louis Arena, having breakfast on a late March morning with an old acquaintance, marveling at how strange life really could be. Then Chelios shrugged. Like everything else, he could shrug well, too.
He would overcome his revulsion of all things Wings and burnish his record with two more Cups in Detroit, part of the 2001-02 championship team that had nine (or maybe 10) potential Hall of Fame players. (Steve Yzerman, Hull, Luc Robitaille and Igor Larionov are already in; Chelios, Dominik Hasek, Sergei Fedorov, Nicklas Lidstrom and Brendan Shanahan surely will be. Check back in six or seven years and Pavel Datsyuk also might be part of the conversation.)
Of course, Chelios was among the least visible of these sublime players. He simply would vanish, not on the ice but in the dressing room, where he rode an exercise bike in the sauna, in his hockey gear, to maintain his fitness level. Even as his play seemed to slide -- maybe his last terrific game came in midseason 2007-08 in Montreal when he was chosen as the game's third star and received a rousing ovation from fans with long memories -- he never played "old." In mid-career, he started early morning workouts at the Gold's Gym in Venice, the star pupil in T.R. Goodman's draconian workout program. You had to be alert to catch him, just like in Detroit. Chelios was in early, worked out and was gone before breakfast.
Playing on the stacked Red Wings cocooned Chelios -- he could make simple plays, he played against third lines -- but it also cost him minutes and points that he might have accumulated in the final few years of his career. When the Red Wings could no longer accommodate him -- Babcock actually greatly admired Chelios because the coach has a fondness for edgy players -- Chelios was still good enough and sufficiently hardheaded that he assumed he could get another NHL job, even at age 48.
He was right, even if it took an AHL apprenticeship in 2009-10. He finished his distinguished career with seven games last season in Atlanta, in which he did not record a point but did not embarrass himself or insist on having his dinner at five o'clock, either.
Atlanta was his only non-Original Six team. While I admired his passion, I was sorry that Chelios chose to make a final quixotic journey there. Looking at it on a computer screen today, that "ATL" looks funny on his record.
Nevertheless, for me, Chelios will always be an Original.
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