In this edition of the "85 Years" series, NBC Sports' Mike "Doc" Emrick discusses the long, successful career of defenseman Chris Chelios.
I remember talking with legendary sports writer Dave Anderson of the New York Times, who spent over 50 years covering sports. I asked him, “Who among the guys that you’ve covered were the guys who always wanted the puck at the crucial time of the game? Who wanted to be up at bat with an 0-2 count in the bottom of the ninth? Who wanted to have the ball thrown at them with only two seconds to go in the basketball game?”
He said simply, “All the good ones want that.”
Chris Chelios, in my mind, was and will always be one of those guys. He seemed to live by the words “Just put me out there and let me make the play.” Of course, he was always the guy out there when the goaltender was pulled. We were in the days of behemoth defensemen when he began his career, and he was not. All he had were his skills, resiliency and tenacity, and he played until he was almost Gordie Howe’s age. That’s quite an accomplishment.
The first time he made an appearance in the National Hockey League with Montreal, there was a confidence about him that you wouldn’t think a rookie would have. Rookies are supposed to stay in the background, not assert themselves very much, lie back and just play not to make mistakes. The last thing you want to do is get sent somewhere else.
And what is forgotten is that in all of this, with the Hall-of-Fame career that he had, Chris Chelios was cut from his first college team in California. Fortunately, things worked out at University of Wisconsin, but not everybody is an overnight success. Some coach at a building program in California made a pretty large mistake, and at Wisconsin they learned what they had, and the U.S. Olympic team did the same thing.
Chris in his first year wasn’t a guy who behaved like a rookie. He had confidence and his chin was stuck out, like he was saying, “Come on, you think you can get it away from me? Come after me.”
Wanting to play is one thing. But wanting to get better and to make your team better is another. There are a lot of athletes that really like playing in the games, but there are only a few that want to come in when there are optional skates, go out and take extra shifts and learn to make their game better. We have a lot of those types in our sport, but that’s not everybody.
Chris was one of those guys who wanted to be better and played with an edge. If he was a football player, he would have never played two-hand touch. If he was a basketball player, he would never be comfortable with a game of Horse. There’s not a lot of contact there and there’s not a lot that you can bring to it if you really like to compete.
He made a lot of opposing guys mad, especially in his younger days, because of the way he played. I haven’t found anything in the rulebook that says you can’t do that, but because he was good, because he played with such a hard edge and with that confidence, he made other guys mad. You’re not able to avoid a collision on the ice if somebody wants to have one with you. There’s nowhere to hide. Cheli was always looking to initiate contact. That was just another part of what made him a legend in Chicago and everywhere he played.
He made a name for himself even before he was with the Blackhawks. I was in the broadcast booth with Bill Clement when the Montreal Canadiens played the Philadelphia Flyers for the Wales Conference championship in 1989 and Chelios knocked Bryan Propp out of the game on a punishing hit.
It was dramatic. We actually got a camera shot of Propp’s helmet that was knocked off, and Chelios hit him so hard that a screw inside the helmet punctured the back of Propp’s head. You could see the screw that was loosened by the hit and there was, of course, blood in it. That was how hard the hit was.
Ron Hextall went after him. Eddie Van Impe, the old Flyers defenseman, used to say, “You’ve got a whole career to pay a guy back,” and I guess Hextall decided that maybe he didn’t have a whole career to pay Chelios back, he's going after him now. That was the last of the big hits of a series of big hits for the Flyers against Chris Chelios and Montreal.
By the time Cheli was moved to Chicago for Denis Savard, he was already very well established; he had a Norris Trophy and Stanley Cup to his name, and he was known as one of the better defensemen in the game even at that time. There are probably some equally-great trades where two stars in their prime were moved, but let’s just say that it was one of the great ones in terms of star power for star power. It certainly helped both sides – Savard would win a Stanley Cup with the Habs, and the Blackhawks got one of the best defensemen in their history.
I think in his Chicago years, I only remember the consistency. You just never worried much about whether there was going to be a turnover; if he had the puck, it was going to head the other way. He was really good at sweeping pucks away from the front of the net or in the crease if they were going to maybe cross the line.
You just expected that consistency and competitiveness from him. The question marks were always other guys; there was never a question about him. If the puck was on his side, it was going to be fine.
With his combination of drive and talent, we knew it was only going to be a matter of time before the Blackhawks made Chelios their captain, and they did in 1995. There are two types of captains, but with Chris they had both kinds. One was the “holler guy,” and if there was something that had to be said, he’d say it. The other was a guy who led by example. In New Jersey, Scott Stevens led by example. Some of the smaller, less-skilled captains who have been really good leaders, they led by talking. Chris could do both, and that’s why he’d not only say it, he’d go out and do it.
Then there was, of course, a life beyond Chicago for him, and that was pretty successful, too. When you’ve been good in three different places, and won a championship in two of them, that’s quite a career.
In hindsight, many people may discuss Chelios’ complicated relationship with his hometown team and the way that he left the Blackhawks. I suppose it was difficult on both sides, but isn’t it interesting how so many fans have forgotten that?
When the five of us were introduced at the United Center this December before entering the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, Cheli was the last one announced and he got a tremendous ovation. It’s funny how that animosity gets forgotten.
At the 2012 NHL Winter Classic in Philadelphia, Eric Lindros—who had an extremely controversial end to his days there—got the biggest ovation at the Alumni Game. Why? They recognized somebody who contributed great things. Lindros, aside from how his career ended in Philly, put up big numbers for them. A lot was expected of him, and when they had the “Legion of Doom” line of him and John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, they delivered a lot and won a lot of games for the Flyers.
It’s the same way here. The fans know he went on to Detroit—the worst place a Blackhawks player could go, like a New Jersey Devil going to the New York Rangers or a Toronto Maple Leaf going to the Canadiens. They know that, but he delivered a lot for them here and he was a hometown guy, so you don’t forget that. You don’t forget the good things, especially when time has passed.
Confident from the very beginning, never afraid of the spotlight and with the genetics and resiliency only “Mr. Hockey” has equaled, Chris Chelios will no doubt be remembered fondly in the hearts of Blackhawks fans for years to come.