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Red Wings’ Chris Chelios finds that time doesn’t necessarily heal all wounds

Red Wings player mentor (and the best-ever U.S. hockey player?) Chris Chelios visited his former employer, the Chicago Blackhawks, prior to his induction into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame tonight, and he received a feting that almost left him uncomfortable some twelve-and-a-half years after he agreed to be traded away from his hometown team. As Chelios told the Chicago Daily Herald’s Tim Sassone, the fact that he was cheered for the first time at the United Center made him feel a little conflicted given that the Hawks’ faithful booed him when, with his family in tow, the Hawks honored his career a season ago:

“Does it bother me? Absolutely, but I understand it,” Chelios said. “I swore I’d never play for (Detroit) and things changed overnight. They’re going to forgive me for that someday, they’ve got to. I played for the USA in other buildings during these World Cups and Canada Cups and Boston hated me, Philly, but when I’d go there with the USA jersey they all cheered for me, so they’ve got to forgive me here sooner or later.”

Chelios saw the direction the Hawks were heading in 1999, and what followed his departure was some of the worst years in franchise history. While some fans are quick to blame Chelios for contributing to that, they forget that late owner Bill Wirtz and former senior vice president and general manager Bob Pulford traded away Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour and allowed other top players such as Joe Murphy, Bernie Nicholls and Suter to leave.

“It started with Jeremy [Roenick] and Eddie [Belfour] leaving,” Chelios said. “I fell into that situation where the Hawks decided to bring (Doug) Gilmour and (Paul) Coffey in and it didn’t work. They were going to go with the young guys and it was just time for me to move on. Everybody was leaving and it was a transition stage.”

Chelios continued while speaking to the Chicago Sun-Times’ Adam L. Jahns...

“Does it bother me? Absolutely,” Chelios said of being booed throughout the years. “But I understand it. I swore I’d never play for them, and then things changed overnight. The biggest reason for going to Detroit was not only was it a great team and a great opportunity, but it was four hours from here, and I was able to commute and see my family. They’re going to forgive me one day for that. They’ve gotta.”

Considering the applause he received, the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame ceremony at the Renaissance Chicago on Monday should be another sign of a change of heart. Chelios is joined by broadcaster Mike “Doc” Emrick, Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider, former Hawks, Sharks and Calgary Flames defenseman Gary Suter and St. Louis Blues star Keith Tkachuk in this year’s class. Chelios, a three-time Stanley Cup champion with the Red Wings, finally called it quits after 26 seasons in August 2010. He works in the Wings’ front office.

“For me, I’m having so much more fun watching my two sons at Michigan State, and my daughter is at Northwestern getting ready to play lacrosse,” he said. “I played long enough and got it all out of my system, and I’m having a blast now.”

An Evergreen Park native and former Mount Carmel student, Chelios said the Hawks always will be a part of him.

“I grew up watching Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita, and that’s where I’m from,” Chelios said.

And the Chicago Tribune’s Chris Kuc:

“I grew up watching Bobby Hull and (Stan) Mikita,” said Chelios, who was traded from the Hawks to the Red Wings in 1999 and currently holds an advisory position to the Wings’ hockey operations staff. “(Chicago) is where I’m from. This is home (and) it’s always going to be home. I loved growing up here and I love coming back.”

When introduced during a break in the action of the Hawks’ game against the Sharks, Chelios received mostly cheers from the United Center crowd. That hasn’t always been the case. Chelios still receives a chilly reception from some Hawks fans after once famously saying he would never play for Detroit.

“Does it bother me? Absolutely,” Chelios said of the chilly reception. “But I understand it. I swore I’d never play for (the Wings) and then things changed overnight. The biggest reason going to Detroit is not only was it a great team and great opportunity, but it was four hours from here and I was able to commute and see my family. They have to forgive me sooner or later.”

Via the ever-indispensible RedWingsFeed, the NHL Network posted a clip of Chelios receiving applause during the Hawks’ 3-2 overtime win over San Jose…

And the Blackhawks’ website posted clips of Chelios discussing his induction…


As well as the current Hawks and the player who wears his #7, Brent Seabrook…


And his decision to leave the Hawks:


Chelios doesn’t feel conflicted at all about the fact that perhaps his favorite defensive partner outside of Nick Lidstrom, fellow Hawk Gary Suter, is joining him in the U.S. HHOF on Monday, as he spoke to Comcast Sportsnet Chicago’s Tracey Myers about his induction:

“Not only am I saving all the plane fare and hotel (rates), but I’ve gotten so many calls from my old neighborhood,” Chelios said Sunday night. “I wasn’t aware of how many people followed that this was happening this weekend. It’s just great to see all the families… that’s what it’s all about is the family thing. My whole family’s going to have a great time this weekend.”

There’s a family feeling among the inductees, too. Chelios, Suter and Tkachuk are longtime friends and were part of that U.S. squad that beat Canada in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey’s best-of-three final.

“It was really special coming into Canada. You hear all kinds of different stories, but after we won that last game (in Montreal) the streets were empty. Nothing was going on,” Suter remembered. “Hockey’s such religion up there, and to beat them at their own game was a special thing for all the guys lucky enough to be on that ’96 team.”

Chelios joked he didn’t want to give away all of his speech for Monday night, but he also treasures that ’96 tournament.

“The memory of that is where we took the next step, actually,” he said. “We always came close, but we were always coming up short in the Canada cups and Olympics. That group, with the (Mike) Modanos and Tkachuks finally got over that hump.”

On either Saturday or Sunday, NHL.com’s Brian Hedger managed to corner the somewhat media-unfriendly Chelios (sorry, I’ve got to admit that he give anyone carrying a digital sound recorder a Babcockian stare of death when he’s not in the mood to talk) during a working weekend for Hedger—Hedger worked both Saturday’s Wings-Jets game and Sunday’s Hawks game—and Chelios spoke at length about his desire to lace up the skates again, which I’m guessing is pretty evident when he still hops in the Wings’ sauna and rides an exercise bike…

“Could you still play in the National Hockey League right now?” he was asked recently during a conversation with NHL.com.

The 49-year old former star defenseman, who will be inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday, retired in 2010 and took a job as executive advisor to Detroit Red Wings general manager Ken Holland. He has an office at Joe Louis Arena, complete with a flat screen TV on one wall and a giant dry-erase board on the other for tracking and grading players. That doesn’t mean Chelios has lost his love of the ice. He still works out in the gym with Wings players, still gets on the ice with Detroit’s defense prospects in Grand Rapids and still looks to be in game shape.

“I always think I could play,” said Chelios, who played parts of 26 NHL seasons for four different teams including the Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens and Atlanta Thrashers. “I don’t lose my vision or skill level, but the legs are what always got me out of trouble and if I don’t have my legs, there’s no way I could play in this game.”

Chelios currently mentors the Wings’ defensive prospects and helps Grand Rapids Griffins strength and conditioning coach Aaron Downey and Wings director of player development Jiri Fischer show them the fitness ropes, but when his kids graduate from college, Chelios would like to get into coaching…

“I’m not 100-percent sure, but that seems to be the way I’m leaning right now,” Chelios told NHL.com. “Right now, the only thing keeping me from coaching is my kids and their activities.”

And especially after Chelios lent a hand to the U.S.‘s Deutschland Cup team in November, it certainly sounds like Wings GM Ken Holland has no desire to allow Chelios to get more than a drive to Grand Rapids’ distance away from Hockeytown when he takes the coaching plung:

“I’m sure if they’d had an injury or two, he would’ve put on the equipment and played,” said Holland, who sees a similar passion for coaching in Chelios that he saw in him as a player. “He just loves hockey. He’s a rink rat. That’s why he’s accomplished what he’s accomplished.”
“He and I have talked about it,” Holland told NHL.com. “I think he’d be a fabulous assistant coach right now. I know he wants to spend time watching his boys play and his daughter play lacrosse, but it wouldn’t surprise me if somewhere down the road he got into the game. He’d be a real good assistant coach.”

Trust me, Holland’s comments about Chelios’s work with the Wings’ “Black Aces” and prospects during the Wings’ Cup run extend to his efforts at the Wings’ summer prospect camp, the prospect tournament and every visit with the Griffins:

“He’d go on the ice with the black aces after practice and they’d go to the gym afterward,” Holland told NHL.com. “A lot of our young kids … you know, he’s Chris Chelios. They followed him around like he was the pied piper – and he loved it. He was right there on the ice with them playing and then going to the gym to work out with them. So, I think it’s a natural fit.”

Hedger wrote an absolutely lovely article about the fact that Chelios played pick-up hockey when he played for the Blackhawks, and, despite his status as a very hands-on owner of his two Cheli’s Chili locations in Dearborn and Detroit (again, trust me, the chili wasn’t the same when he was playing for the Chicago Wolves and Atlanta Thrashers, but it’s a 10 out of 10 again), a member of the Wings’ front office and a player mentor, he’s skating in men’s league games in Detroit, but you might find the story of his trade to Detroit a little more interesting from a Wings fan’s perspective:

When Chris Chelios was patrolling the blue line with equal parts brilliance and menace for Chicago, there was no team he was more excited to play that the Detroit Red Wings. 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.”

I remember Darren McCarty saying that he still had pieces of Chelios’s old Sher-Wood sticks embedded in the back of his neck when Chelios arrived, and I don’t think that’s an exaggeration. For many Wings fans, the 1999 trade deadline was nothing less than the most shocking day in Wings history, because the Wings added two players who were all but Claude Lemieux before Claude Lemieux became so hated in Chelios and Wendel Clark, all in the same swoop. Adding all-time bad guy Ulf Samuelsson and former Wings nemesis Bill Ranford added up to perhaps the weirdest day of the modern era for Wings fans who held grudges.

I still remember the literal and visceral shock of finding out that Chelios had indeed joined the Wings, and it really did take at least half a season—if not until 2002—for some die-hard Wings fans to truly embrace him.

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.

Holland can’t say enough about Chelios’s passion, dedication, work ethic and especially his selflessness during his tenure with the Wings as a player, as he told the Detroit Free Press’s George Sipple:

“In 2008 when we won the Stanley Cup, he was a healthy scratch in Pittsburgh,” Holland recalled Saturday night. “He was in the locker room, he had his gear on, and when we won the Cup he came flying out to join in the celebration with his teammates. It’s never about Cheli. It’s about the team, and it’s about fitness and commitment and passion and being a fierce competitor.”

For those reasons and many more, Chelios is being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame. The ceremony is tonight in Chicago, his hometown. Holland said he will attend, along with Mike and Marian Ilitch, assistant general manager Jim Nill and assistant GM Ryan Martin.
“He’s a first-ballot NHL Hall of Famer,” Holland said. “He’s one of the great defensemen of his era. When you play till you’re 46 or 47 years of age, part of it is skill. But the other part is determination and passion and sacrifice.”

Wings forward Dan Cleary said Chelios is “one of a kind.”

“He had a great work ethic, a great love for hockey,” Cleary said. “His workouts were crazy. His whole routine of getting ready for games was insane. He’s pretty legendary, you know. He pretty much started the whole thing of biking in the sauna, then his workouts in the off-season. But not only that, to play as long as he did, he just loved hockey. When we talk about Cheli, the one thing we say is there will never be another guy built like him. He’s like the last of his kind.”

Chelios still engages in brutal summertime workouts in Malibu with his sons Dean and Jake and pals Don Wildman and Laird Hamilton, so just Chelios breathes hockey, the Wings also know that he can’t turn that competitiveness off. For the Wings, that’s a wonderful thing in both the past and present tense:

“It was just lifestyle to him,” Holland said. “It wasn’t work. He still loves it, still trains today. Determination—it’s a skill to a degree. You can learn to get a little more determined, but you can’t teach the determination that Chris Chelios had. He loves hockey. He was a rink rat. He was a really, really good player, but he was a fierce competitor.”

Update: USA Today’s Kevin Allen is in Chicago to cover the U.S. HHOF induction, and he offers this take on Chelios’s legacy:

Defenseman Chris Chelios: When you consider all that Chelios has accomplished, it’s easy to conclude he’s the greatest American player of all time. You can make a case for Mike Modano, who is the NHL’s all-time leading scorer among U.S.-born players, or Pat LaFontaine or Hall of Fame goalie Frank Brimsek. But what separates Chelios from the other great players is his leadership skills. He was a member of the greatest generation of American players, and it was clear that he was the main man in that group. He was nicknamed Captain America.

In addition to being one of the NHL’s top players, Chelios was a ruthless competitor and a very, very proud American. He seemed to believe Americans could beat the Canadians and Russians in hockey long before everyone else did. His American teammates seemed to sense that he would do anything to win an international game. When Chelios was in the U.S. dressing room, his teammates looked to him like he was the godfather of the American program.

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calquake's avatar

Just another great edition of your blog in a long list of great blogs George.  Thank you for being a hockey fan and, most importantly, a Red Wing fan.

Posted by calquake from a.k.a. Uniquake, workin' on my manifesto on 12/12/11 at 03:11 PM ET


Second calquake…

wonderful post on Chelli, George!

Posted by wingsuver4ever from TC on 12/12/11 at 03:39 PM ET

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About The Malik Report

The Malik Report is a destination for all things Red Wings-related. I offer biased, perhaps unprofessional-at-times and verbose coverage of my favorite team, their prospects and developmental affiliates. I've joined the Kukla's Korner family with five years of blogging under my belt, and I hope you'll find almost everything you need to follow your Red Wings at a place where all opinions are created equal and we're all friends, talking about hockey and the team we love to follow.