Chelios set to enter U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame
The stories often sound more like rumors, kind of far-fetched; tall tales told by your grandpa on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Ask around about legendary NHL defenseman Chris Chelios and you're sure to run into a few legendary ones.
Some are funny, like the image of him donning an apron at a Chicago diner and cooking breakfast. Others are a little folksy, like the one about the perennial NHL All-Star driving around looking for a good pick-up game with his hockey equipment in the trunk.
More times than not, though, they are as true as the slap shot that regularly came off the stick of Chelios, one of the greatest defenseman to ever play the game.
Chelios' career spanned 26 years in the League spread across four teams and included three Stanley Cup titles, three Norris Trophies, four Olympic appearances for the United States, a Gold medal with Team USA at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and a national championship in 1983 with the University of Wisconsin.
"When you think of 'Cheli,' I mean, he is the best American player to ever play in the National Hockey League for sure," said NBC hockey analyst Ed Olczyk, a former Blackhawks teammate, who also played with Chelios in the 1984 Olympics. "When you think about how his game evolved and had to change over the years and then you think about the Norris Trophies and the Stanley Cups … to me, there's no player who's made a bigger impact. He could do it all."
More often than not, he did it all at the rink with a nasty disposition – something that he credits to growing up on the south side of Chicago as a fan of Bears linebacker Dick Butkus. He also says he got tough quick as a "targeted" American in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
Chelios retired in 2010, but left behind a wealth of memories everywhere he played the game – which included stints at Wisconsin for college and the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Atlanta Thrashers in the NHL.
His story is the tale of player who nearly quit the sport as an undersized teenager living in California – prior to growing three inches and adding 40 pounds with the Moose Jaw Canucks junior team – to somebody who's regarded as one of the best hockey players, regardless of nationality, to ever lace up skates.
On Monday evening in his hometown of Chicago, the 49-year old Chelios will be inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame.
Among those in attendance will be a lot of familiar faces – including his family and quite a few friends; perhaps some guys from his old neighborhood and even a couple rink managers who used to give him a key so he could get on the ice whenever he wanted.
To them, he's just "Cheli" -- and always will be. Sharing this occasion with them and his family, he says, is the perfect way to do it.
"I got really lucky because it's in Chicago and I've always gotten lucky with the draw," Chelios told NHL.com. "It couldn't have worked out any better having this induction where I was born and raised."
Chelios will share the induction stage with former Chicago Blackhawks defense partner and good friend Gary Suter, as well as with former star power forward Keith Tkachuk, legendary announcer Mike "Doc" Emrick and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider. It's a safe bet that each of those men has a good "Cheli" story or two of their own.
If so, they're not alone.
It seems like everybody in hockey has at least one good one. Some stand out more than others.
Blackhawks radio analyst Troy Murray, a former Hawks defenseman, has heard a couple of them through the years – even though he didn't play with Chelios.
"People say that he was a freak of nature as far as his ability to stay competitive in the game for so long, but that was just his love and his passion,” said Murray, who played against Chelios in the NHL and collegiately. "That's what made him such a special player. I know these stories from the past that he would drive around Chicago with his equipment in his trunk and he'd stop at a rink and play rat hockey at night with a men's league."
Even Murray shook his head and smiled a little at the thought.
"People would be out there and say, 'Geez, that guy looks like Chris Chelios,' because he would just go out there and skate with the guys," Murray said. "Half the time he didn't even know the people. He'd go anywhere. He was a rink rat. He would just stop in and play. That's just the way he was. He loved being on the ice."
Chelios, by the way, confirmed the rink-rat story.
His love of the ice, he says, is the biggest reason he trained so hard off of it. It's also the thread the weaves together many of the stories told about his career – which included a mind-boggling 1,651 NHL games, 185 goals, 763 assists, 2,891 minutes in the penalty box, three Stanley Cups and many intimidated opponents.
Why, exactly, would a guy in the prime of his NHL career -- not to mention the captain of the team for which he grew up cheering -- play beer league games with strangers every summer?
The answer is simple. It's the same reason he played for the Motor City Mechanics of the United Hockey League during the work stoppage in 2004, as well as playing for the American Hockey League's Chicago Wolves at the tail end of his career.
It's the same reason he's still a rink rat to this day and keeps himself in what appears to be game shape – all while owning two sports bars and assisting Red Wings general manager Ken Holland by working with defensemen playing with the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins, Detroit's top minor-league affiliate.
"t was fun," Chelios told NHL.com. "I just love to skate. I love the game. I love being around it. I'm still (playing) now (in Detroit). There's about two groups a week and it's just pick-up hockey. Just the odd guys show up. I go out and play with them. I don't play 'D,' though. I play forward because it's not as boring."
When he played pick-up games in Chicago, Chelios would play with some of the guys he grew up with on the corner of 101st Street and California on the far southern border of the city.
Anatomy of Chelios' unlikely trade to Detroit
A Chicago native, Chelios never liked the regional rivals, who shared the Norris Division. Famously, he said he would never play for Detroit. Yet, he was put in exactly that position after a shocking trade the Red Wings late in the 1998-1999 season.
He met that challenge head-on however, like he did every challenge in his career. He knew he had enemies in the Red wing dressing room, but he knew he could help the franchise win a few more Stanley Cups too.
"It was the oddest feeling," Chelios told NHL.com. "You couldn't feel, as a person, more out of place than to walk in that room. The one thing that sticks out that day was when Marty Lapointe walked up to me and said, 'Is everything going to be OK between us now?' I just go, 'Yeah, I guess … yeah.' There was a lot of bad blood and personal words, but now I'm part of the family and it's great."
Detroit GM Ken Holland knew Chelios could make the transition and he knew the veteran's compete level was just what his veteran team needed to stay at the top.
"He was 36 years of age, but he played hard," Holland said. "We had good success here in having older players here and … we were hopeful and optimistic that we could get some good hockey out of him. Our hope was that we would get some good hockey out of him for three additional years and I think I did about five more contracts with him."
The competitive fire is what led Holland to even make the initial call to then-Chicago general manager Bob Murray about trading Chelios.
"I talked to Bobby Murray and asked if he had any interest in trading Chris Chelios and he said, 'Absolutely not,'" Holland told NHL.com. "I said, 'If you have a change of heart, put us on your list and give us a call.' About four o'clock in the afternoon the day before the trade deadline, Bobby Murray calls and says things have changed there and they were open to trading Chris Chelios … do we still have interest?"
Holland and Murray completed the deal the next day and Chelios had a huge impact on the franchise -- helping it win two more Cups during his playing days and now working with the organization's top defensive prospects.
-- Brian Hedger
"A couple of those 'Weekend Warrior' types would come after me, but usually not … just because of the fact I was from Chicago," said Chelios, who was traded to the Blackhawks for Denis Savard in 1990 by the Montreal Canadiens – who'd picked him in the second round (No.40) of the 1981 NHL Draft. "Generally, I skated with my buddies and we'd go out and have a few beers afterward. They loved it.
"They'd come to (Hawks) games and bang on the glass and I'd remember them. It was a lot of fun."
Everything about the game was fun for Chelios -- even intimidating opponents. Chelios took special joy in hounding opposing skill players like Alexander Mogilny, Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov. He was relentless and sometimes vicious. He was never apologetic.
"It's the only way you can get to a skill player," Chelios said. "That's probably where that came from ... competing. I brought a lot of the bad stuff upon myself because of it, but I didn't mind engaging. As many times as I got the best of someone, someone would get the best of me. That's the Chicago in me. That's all that is."
Chelios broke into the NHL with Montreal, learning from greats like Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson and Guy Lafleur during parts of seven seasons, and winning his first Cup in 1986. He was then dealt to the Hawks, where he played parts of nine seasons in his hometown and became the captain while helping Chicago get to the 1992 Stanley Cup Final.
Chelios also played for the U.S. in several international events – including that championship win in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
While that was certainly considered the prime of his career, Chelios also played at a high level for the Red Wings for parts of 10 seasons after being dealt there in 1999. It is a trade that is still a sore subject for some fans on both sides of an Original Six rivalry that was at one of its peaks during Chelios' tenure in Chicago.
Chelios quickly settled in to the Wings' roster of highly-skilled, self-motivated veteran stars perfectly. He helped them win the Cup in 2002 and was part of another Cup title in 2008. He stayed so long in Detroit for both the Wings and because his family put down roots there.
His sons currently play hockey at Michigan State and he loves watching them play. He's also got a daughter playing lacrosse at Northwestern.
His day job also provides an office inside Joe Louis Arena, complete with a big-screen TV on the wall. When informed of this, most have the same reaction.
Chris Chelios has an office?
Indeed, he does. And you never know where he might wind up next. Whatever he does, you can be sure of two things: it will include ice hockey and there will surely be more "Cheli" stories that spring from it.
Nicklas Lidstrom, the 41-year-old Detroit captain, has a few -- including one that brought a smile to his face when he told it recently.
Back when his own sons were young, Lidstrom would bring them to Joe Louis Arena to skate around on off days. Chelios and his sons often had the same idea.
What usually happened on the ice perfectly sums up "Cheli" and his love of hockey.
"He'd bring all the kids down to the ice and he'd throw the gear on -- the goalie gear," Lidstrom said, laughing. "I remember him having Dominik Hasek's gear on once and the kids are all taking shots at him and he's just loving it out there. He was just loving it, being on the ice and around the rink. That's just 'Cheli.'"
Ask anybody in hockey. They'll tell you the same.