CHICAGO – Chris Chelios might have spent 10 seasons playing for the Detroit Red Wings and still live in the Motor City, but the Chicagoan inside him knew the boos were coming from Chicago Blackhawks fans.
On Friday night at the United Center, Chelios donned a red Blackhawks sweater for the first time since the Hawks traded him in 1999 to Detroit -- where he spent the next nine seasons and won two Stanley Cups.
The Blackhawks honored him before taking on the visiting Red Wings with "Chris Chelios Heritage Night," but that didn't stop a number of bitter Hawks fans from voicing their displeasure with him for staying so long in the rival Midwest city they so love to hate. Even Chelios once remarked during his time playing for the Hawks that he'd never play for the Red Wings – something Chicago fans have never let him live down.
So a smattering of them booed him on Friday night. Toward the end of his speech, Chelios asked to "let bygones be bygones" and pointed out that he was still "one of their own," to no avail.
"It's great and I'm really fortunate and honored that the Blackhawks allowed me to do this," Chelios told reporters at the first intermission. "Maybe I should have waited 10 more years, but like I said, it's going to be a great night."
All in all, Chelios took the booing in stride with his wife and kids standing by his side – all wearing No. 7 Blackhawks sweaters like him.
"It was getting louder and louder, so that was the only thing I could do was try to get louder than them," Chelios said. "At the end of the day, I understand the whole Chicago-Detroit rivalry, so there's nothing you can do. I looked over at my daughter halfway through and she was laughing her head off. Just that alone was pretty good."
Chelios also told his two sons, Dean and Jake, to be ready for action. Both play hockey at Michigan State, and their father – who spent a Blackhawks record 1,495 minutes in the penalty box – jokingly made sure they had his back.
"I told my two sons 'We'll be waiting outside Gate 3-1/2 if anybody wants to fight,'" Chelios said, laughing.
Asked if he'd ever bring his "Cheli's Chili" restaurant chain back to the Windy City, Chelios quipped: "Not after this … nobody would go there."
Lost in all the booing, however, was the fact Chelios remains one of the most accomplished defensemen in Hawks history. After playing the first seven seasons of his NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens -- winning a Stanley Cup in 1986 -- Chelios came to the Blackhawks in 1990.
Chelios played nine seasons in Chicago and further cemented his status as one of the game's best defensemen. He totaled 487 points (92 goals, 395 assists) in 664 regular-season games for the Hawks from 1990-99, and seven of his 11 All-Star appearances came in a Chicago uniform.
Chelios is also just one of four defensemen in the Hawks' history to win the Norris Trophy -- winning the award three times overall and twice in a Blackhawks uniform in 1993 (15 goals, 73 points) and 1996 (14 goals, 72 points).
"Geez, I loved the way he played," said Hawks coach Joel Quenneville, also a gritty NHL defenseman in his playing days. "I always liked the way he played. Not too many defensemen almost could always play going forward at a guy and kill a play. His anticipation was amazing. He was great."
"When he was just a young kid with Montreal, I was playing against him in Hartford," Quenneville said. "I said, ‘Oh, this guy's gonna be amazing.' He was, for a lot of years, a great defenseman."
Interestingly, Chelios recorded 58 assists each of the three times that he topped the 70-point mark in his career -- still Chicago's single-season record. That included a line of 15 goals and 73 points in 1989 for the Canadiens and the same stat line in 84 games for the Hawks in 1993.
For his 26-year NHL career, Chelios finished with 948 points (185 goals, 763 assists) and logged 2,891 minutes in the penalty box during 1,651 NHL regular-season games. Aside from his time with the Hawks, Red Wings and Canadiens, Chelios finished his NHL career last season playing seven games with the Atlanta Thrashers.
He also represented the United States in four Winter Olympics (1984, 1998, 2002 and 2006). Coming back to the United Center didn't necessarily bring back tingly feelings for him, but being there in front of so many family and friends did.
As for the negative sentiments by some in the crowd?
Well, like he said, Chelios is a Chicagoan at heart. He understands the angst.
"I told everybody, including my wife, that I'm going to get booed," Chelios said. "If I wouldn't have raised my voice, they would have drowned me out. So like I said, you have the advantage with the microphone. They came around a little bit. It's all in good fun. If Bill Buckner can be forgiven for what happened (in Boston), hopefully someday they're going to forgive me too."