In his third and final Olympics, Chris Chelios has one not-altogether-simple goal: to make the U.S. hockey team a winner on and off the ice
By Michael Farber
Chris Chelios has earned more than $38 million in his 18 seasons in the NHL, but if the career of arguably the best hockey player the U.S. has ever produced is ultimately defined by a bottom line, it will be by a debit that is eternally to his credit.
Memorably, Chelios wrote a check for $3,000. That's a three followed by one zero for each of his Olympic teammates who never stepped forward to take the blame for treating their suite at the Olympic Village in Nagano roughly the way sophomores do a frat house during a major kegger. The difference is that one group represents Sigma Chi, the other the United States. The payment, which Chelios never intended to be made public, covered the relatively minor damage, but it was also a down payment on reclaiming the good name of USA Hockey. Chelios had nothing to do with the 1998 incident, but he was the player who grabbed his checkbook, who answered questions, who did not merely chant hockey's shopworn mantra of "accountability" but also lived it. "That says a lot about him," says Brett Hull, an Olympic teammate of Chelios's who now plays with him on the Detroit Red Wings. "He took a lot of heat [for the mistakes of others]."
Some who mistook the check as an admission of guilt blasted USA Hockey for naming Chelios the captain for these Games -- but Chelios is calloused to the point of imperviousness. He listens to coaches but answers to himself, striving for a standard as noble as it is quixotic. "Chelly goes out every night to play the perfect game," Hull says. Chelios turned 40 last month and there are a lot of hard miles on his odometer, a by-product of his combative nature. Still, he remains among the NHL's best defensemen this season, a rock on the blue line for the Stanley Cup favorite.
"The U.S. couldn't have a better captain," says Brendan Shanahan, a Red Wings teammate, who is playing for Canada. "He's always there for his teammates. You need someone to go to lunch with? He's there. A ride to the rink? No matter how far out of his way, he's the one picking guys up. His leadership comes naturally. He has his finger on the pulse of a dressing room."
The Olympics pose a different challenge for Chelios. He played with many of the U.S. players in the 1996 World Cup and again in Nagano, and he is bound to them more by a flag than by the easy familiarity that emerges over years of playing together in the NHL. The Olympics, from relationships to the hockey itself, really are a blur. In these Games, Chelios and his teammates must survive six matches in 10 days against the world's best players, on the larger international ice surface. They can expect U-S-A! chants to carry them only so far.
The Games have not been kind to the teammate whom Keith Tkachuk calls the godfather of U.S. hockey. This is his third, last and maybe best Olympic chance, given that the U.S. squad is playing at home, with capable goalies and a solid coach in Herb Brooks. In the coming days Chelios will use his leadership and his inspired play to try to write a check his aging body can cash. He knows if he and his teammates strike gold, he can sweep the shards of Nagano under the rug.
Still there was never a better time to be a brilliant, young American hockey player. The sport was cruising on a groundswell of grassroots support, and Chelios was riding shotgun. In the run-up to the 1984 Olympics the U.S. team was greeted by crowds almost everywhere it went. There was an overriding sense that Sarajevo would be a fairy-tale sequel, especially after the Americans spanked Canada 8-2 in Milwaukee a few weeks before the Games, but the Canadians beat the U.S. in the first game of the tournament. In the second match, a 4-1 loss to Czechoslovakia, Chelios took a shot off an ankle and spent the remainder of the fortnight in a walking cast, removing it only to play. He didn't bother with an X-ray until he arrived in Montreal, where he was about to embark on an NHL career. The X-ray revealed that Chelios had been playing with a stress fracture of his foot, but that's not what hurt the most.
"We knew we had failed, that we had let a lot of people down," Chelios says, referring to the team's seventh-place finish. "A lot of things that happened in that dressing room were pretty disappointing. It was a real bad scene all around, from management to players." A dejected Chelios made his uneasy peace with his Olympics, which he assumed would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Now he would start chasing Stanley Cups, which he did with a zeal that was almost feral. In the final minute of a one-goal game Chelios might have been the best defenseman since Bobby Orr. He would do anything to keep the puck out of his net or keep the puck in the attacking zone, depending on which side of the score he found himself on. If his team was leading 5-2 late in the third period, he wanted to make it 6-2. When he was with the Montreal Canadiens in 1984 and the Canadiens were up 6-1 on the New York Islanders, Chelios tried to beat Hall of Fame defenseman Denis Potvin one-on-one only to have Potvin cut his legs out from under him. When Chelios returned to the Montreal bench, left wing Bob Gainey told him they didn't need a seventh goal. "Now it makes sense," Chelios says. "You do what the situation calls for." Chelios learned to do that in Montreal, Chicago and finally in Detroit, where bad knees -- he had three operations last season -- limited his offense. Along the way he won a Cup with the Canadiens, in 1986, three Norris Trophies and universal respect for a willingness to play an edgy, almost amoral game.
"The thing I saw in him was a total commitment to doing whatever it takes to win," says Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson, who coached Chelios in the World Cup and in Nagano. "He doesn't run and hide from responsibility."
While the detritus of broken chairs, gouges in the walls of the room and a fire extinguisher that landed five floors down in a courtyard live in Olympic lore, the real problems for the U.S. in Nagano were on the ice. Simply put, the Americans couldn't solve the big ice. "A decent team that was poorly prepared," Hull says of a squad that eschewed the neutral-zone trap. "A completely wrong system. We were giving up three-on-ones on every shift." Chelios had found Sarajevo disappointing, but 1998 was a debacle. "To play the way we did and then with the off-ice stuff at the end, that was just brutal, embarrassing," he says. "You can understand college kids doing that, but professionals...."
The captain went down with the ship while the culprits hid behind the notion that a team should stick together. Instead of the apologies that would have buried the story in a week, their identities became a four-year "Who shot J.R.?"
Redemption is readily available. Chelios has returned to find a different Olympics and a different America. "I think the way things have gone since September 11," Chelios says, "we provide more of an opportunity for people to pull together. No one will be cheering against us. If we win the gold, it will be like winning a Stanley Cup in Montreal. Just huge."