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The Verdict: Chelios' tale one of longevity and excellence

Monday, 12.13.2010 / 1:00 AM / The Verdict
By Bob Verdi  - Blackhawks Team Historian



Chris Chelios went to the parade too. When the Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup last June, he was working for the Detroit Red Wings, and he still is. But if you were born in Chicago, and you played hockey in Chicago, and you call Chicago home, you can’t pass up a parade in Chicago, can you?

THE VERDICT

Team historian Bob Verdi has covered sports for five decades, including more than 40 years as a columnist and contributor for the Chicago Tribune. Verdi authored "Chicago Blackhawks: Seventy-Five Years" in 2001.

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“I was back at our house in Michigan, and I told my wife, Tracee, I think I’ll go check it out,” Chelios recalled. “She understood. She looked at me and said, ‘You’re nuts. You bleed Chicago. Go ahead.’ So I flew in, took up a spot on Michigan Avenue along with about 2 million other people, and it was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen.

“When we won the Cup in Montreal, I thought that was something. But the parade in the Loop, it was twice as good. Perfect. Beautiful. And after Tracee saw the highlights on TV, she didn’t think I was so nuts. A few people recognized me. Sunglasses can’t hide this nose. But they were friendly because they were in a good mood. I don’t know about my night in the United Center. I’ll probably be booed, don’t you think?”

Perhaps. More than likely though fans will remember Chelios for building part of what surely will be his Hall of Fame resume as a star defenseman with the Blackhawks during the 1990s. Traded from the Canadiens for beloved Denis Savard, Chelios immediately endeared himself to the Stadium faithful by greeting enemy puck-carriers in ill humor. He played on some good teams, including a 1992 Cup finalist, but transition in sports is inevitable, and management eyed a youth movement.

Chelios admitted to not carrying the load that he used to, yet he didn’t feel he was finished either. The Cubs thought Jamie Moyer was toast in 1988, and he was still pitching at age 48.  So Chelios accepted a trade to the Red Wings, a visceral rival whose jersey he once promised he would never wear. Well, he finally retired about 20 minutes ago – also at 48.

“Chicago fans bring that up to me all the time,” Chelios said, laughing. “’You said you’d never go to Detroit!’ Well, I changed my mind. How many people do you know who have never changed their minds? I wanted to keep playing, because I love playing, and I went to a place where I was going to play. And I did, until I decided this summer it was over. It was time to quit.”

Chelios actually “quit” hockey 30 years ago, which makes his tale of longevity and excellence even more remarkable. While growing up as a rink rat in Evergreen Park, he matured slowly. He was a fixture at Mount Carmel High School but a fixture weighing only 130 pounds or so. Recruiters didn’t exactly knock on his door, wherever that door happened to be. Chelios’ dad, Gus, owned restaurants, and when business tanked in Chicago, he took the family elsewhere, including Australia and San Diego. Chris couldn’t even make a college squad, and he’d already been cut twice in Canada by junior teams.

“So I was done,” he said. “I was cooking at a Burger King, working at gas stations, trying to figure out where to go next. I ran into a guy at the beach in San Diego. He tells me they’re looking for players in Moose Jaw. I call the coach in Moose Jaw, Larry Billows. He asks me to fly up there. I have no money for a plane ticket. I go to Saskatchewan; the coach looks at me and shakes his head. I’m small. I switch from center to defense, play OK, start getting bigger and wind up at the University of Wisconsin. I’m drafted by the Canadiens in 1981. If you’d have told me when I was 18 that I’d play in the NHL until I was 48, I’d have told you you’re crazy.”

Chelios’ current role is that of executive advisor to general manager Ken Holland, who is at the top of the Red Wings’ much-admired hockey operation. Chelios also reports to Jim Nill, Detroit’s secret front office weapon, and former Blackhawks teammate Curt Fraser, who coaches the Red Wings farm club in Grand Rapids. Chelios works with young defensemen in the organization while staying as close to home as possible. His two sons, Dean and Jake, play hockey at Michigan State. Daughter Caley plays lacrosse and is headed to Northwestern. Tara is 14 and holds down the fort with Tracee, who has to be a candidate for sainthood.

“I was away for a bunch of years,” said Chelios. “I like to think I was there when I was needed, but Tracee has cleaned up a lot of my messes. And the way the kids have turned out so well tells you a lot about her.

“I just loved the competition. When I was done with the Red Wings, I went and played with the Chicago Wolves. That was fun, but guys gave me too much respect. Nobody hit me. It was borderline embarrassing. I liked the contact, that’s for sure. I had a wild side, undisciplined, and I took some cheap penalties. The good old elbow always came in handy. Especially the left one, the top hand. You could take a guy out with an elbow, and it only cost you two minutes. Where would I be in the NHL with today’s rules? Suspended.”

Chelios hangs with celebrities from all fields, whether at his ocean-front property in Malibu or at Chicago’s own Soldier Field, where he was backstage last summer at a Kid Rock concert when Brent Seabrook showed up with the Stanley Cup. Chelios has been there and done that. He has a ring from Montreal and two from Detroit, but that doesn’t diminish his feelings of joy for Chicago’s hockey fans.

“A great year for the sport,” he concluded. “The Olympics were great for the game, and the Blackhawks winning the Stanley Cup was great for the city and the NHL. Thank goodness they won it because everybody knew they were up against the salary cap. When people ask me where I’m from, even though I’ve been all over, I always say that Chicago is my home. Because it is.”

On Chelios’ Heritage Night, Dec. 17, the Detroit Red Wings will furnish the opposition. And when it’s time for the Hall of Fame, he won’t have to worry about which logo he’ll don. This isn’t baseball. They let you wear a dress suit, and you can plead neutrality.

Of course, there have been athletes who retire, then enter a Hall of Fame, then get the itch again and unretire. And Chris Chelios doesn’t look like a guy who owns two restaurants. He looks like a guy who bikes dozens of miles a day, still lifts weights and orders spinach with his breakfast omelet.

“Oh, I’m finished playing,” Chelios said. “Gordie Howe went until he was 52, but I’m not trying to catch him. You won’t see me out there ever again. At least I don’t think so.”