None played better for longer than Chelios
Ask enough former and current NHL players, coaches and executives about Chris Chelios and a clear pattern of responses begins to emerge.
Chelios is lauded for his toughness, his leadership, his talent, his durability and his determination. He was a hockey player's hockey player, an everyman who wouldn't be deprived of achieving his dream and a force of nature who other world-class athletes were left to marvel at.
"You know, he's just an ultimate warrior," Minnesota Wild defenseman Ryan Suter said. "I don't think you have to say anything more than that."
Added Nashville Predators general manager David Poile: "Right up there with one of the best Americans ever. Now that it's all over you think of endurance because of how long he played, how old he was when he played; you think of the word warrior."
Chelios is one of the best defensemen in the history of the sport. He played at the game's highest level for longer than anyone ever except for Gordie Howe.
Most of the numbers, whether it was his production or his longevity, are astounding. Chelios will be honored for a remarkable career this weekend in Toronto and on Monday he will be enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame along with Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan, Geraldine Heaney and Fred Shero.
"I mean, he's a shoo-in. What hasn't he done?" Pittsburgh Penguins player development coach Bill Guerin said. "His international experience, his NHL … I mean, he was a dominant player for so long. And the way he played the game, like the passion that he has for the game.
"[Chelios] is just, you know, he's a Hall of Famer. Always has been."
A long and successful Hall of Fame career almost never happened. Chelios was born in Chicago but his family moved to California long before the explosion of hockey rinks, teams and players with NHL dreams became as commonplace as it is today.
For as remarkable as Chelios' career was, that it almost didn't start at all might be even more so. He tried to make multiple junior teams in Canada when he was 16 years old but couldn't. He tried out for a small college team near his home the following year and didn't make it.
Eventually he ended up in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, one step down from the three major junior leagues in Canada. Two years later he was a draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens. Two years after that he was an NCAA champion at Wisconsin and about to play for the United States at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics and the 1984 Canada Cup.
"Being on a few interviews and hearing his story about how he stuck with the game at a young age, just wouldn't be denied, that sort of defines his whole career," Niedermayer said. "When he was on the ice he wasn't going to be denied in any way. I can totally respect what he did."
Chelios joined the Canadiens for the end of the 1983-84 season after the Olympics and it would end up being the first of 26 seasons in the NHL. For the first half of his career he was one of the elite offensive defensemen in the League.
He won the Norris Trophy three times, in 1989, 1993 and 1996, making him one of only eight players in League history to win the award three times and the only American to do so. Seven times he totaled at least 60 points, and he's one of only three defensemen to record at least 70 points and 185 penalty minutes in a season (and he did it twice).
Those penalty minutes weren't a fluke either. Chelios was the definition of someone who played with an edge and didn't mind engaging in whatever means he felt necessary to help his team find success.
"He was a generational player … he changed the way the position was played," said Doug Weight, who is an assistant coach and special advisor to the general manager for the New York Islanders. "Very offensive, very gifted coming into the League, but the grit, the desire, for a lack of a better term the meanness he brought … he was just the prototypical mean defenseman, tough in front of the net, hard to play against. You hated him.”
Chelios won the Stanley Cup in 1986 with the Canadiens and again in 2002 and 2008 with the Detroit Red Wings. He helped the Canadiens get to the Cup Final in 1989 and the Chicago Blackhawks in 1992. He played in an NHL-record 266 Stanley Cup Playoff games, three more than No. 2 Nicklas Lidstrom.
"He has won more playoff games than anyone in history," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "I remember when [Chelios] broke that record, it was [Mark] Messier's record, and how valuable he was. I think [Chelios] is the greatest American player of all time, [a] genetic freak. I guess Gordie is the same, as long as he did it at the level he did it at. You've got to be a training machine. The wear and tear you go through -- [he was a] special, special player."
Chelios was playing for the Moose Jaw Canucks in the SJHL when the Americans won the gold medal in Lake Placid in 1980. Not only did he play for the next American entry in the Olympics, Chelios became a staple for the United States and a leader for a critical generation of players for the growth of the sport in the U.S.
He participated in four Olympic Games, three Canada Cups and two World Cups of Hockey. He won gold at the 1996 World Cup and silver at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
"Really, to me, he's a real strong symbol of USA Hockey, the first real substantial growth in USA Hockey, the time that USA was considered a threat to win and he was right at the top there of the players," Poile said. "I mean, you talk about going to work. Who do you want on your team? Chris Chelios."
"For USA Hockey, he was a huge part of that veteran leadership," Weight said. "The way he stayed in shape and the way he was committed to the game and the way he loved the game, you could argue that he is the biggest lover of the game of hockey and never wanted to give it up that ever played."
Beyond the statistics, the awards and the team success, the career of Chris Chelios is defined by his longevity and his desire to win.
When Chelios retired in 2010 after 1,651 regular-season games, he became the last player from the 1981 NHL Draft to still be active in the League. There wasn't anyone from the 1982, 1983, 1984, 1985 or 1986 drafts left, either.
He still was an effective player in his advanced age. Chelios averaged more than 25 minutes of ice time as a 40-year-old, more than 21 minutes at 42. He played 81 games of a condensed 2005-06 schedule for the Red Wings and averaged more than 18 minutes per night … and turned 44 years old.
Chelios was not exceptionally fast and he did not have the hardest shot. At 6-feet tall and less than 200 pounds, he certainly was not blessed with extraordinary size. He was a self-made hockey player and that work ethic and desire helped him achieve things most players could not.
"He was still very effective," Weight said. "His drive to be effective and his nutrition and the way he handled himself and got himself in shape … he was able to keep playing. It's uncanny. I'm 42-and-a-half right now, and I say half because I'm counting the months. I play a shinny game and I'm having trouble getting out of bed.
"There's not a guy that's more competitive. You'd see him across the room biting his own lip off if we were down a goal. He just couldn't wait to get on the ice and compete. He hated to lose. He just did some great things. Well-deserved to be in the Hockey Hall of Fame. I'm glad I got to play on a few teams with Chris."