At age 51, Chris Chelios
finally made it into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Why did it take him so long? Because he did not finally retire until age 48. Or so he says.
Chelios, a superstar defenseman for his hometown Blackhawks from 1990 to 1999, was ubiquitous during Chicago’s recent seven-game-plus playoff series against the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he serves General Manager Ken Holland’s much-admired organization as an executive assistant. Chelios spends a lot of time with Detroit’s American League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins, who recently won the Calder Cup.
Chelios was fit and tanned. How one logs pool time in Michigan during the winter is unclear, but the point is, he looks like he could still play, maybe to age 58. As it is, Cheli was the oldest first-time eligible Hall candidate, and his induction was a no-brainer.
Chelios won three Stanley Cups—in 1986 with Montreal, and in 2002 and 2008 with Detroit. When he joined the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009-10, he became the second-oldest individual to play in the National Hockey League behind Gordie Howe, another icon who simply loved to lace up the skates.
“You won’t ever see me out there again...at least I don’t think so,” said Chelios, who would not be the first Hall-of-Fame athlete to un-retire after being bronzed. Guy Lafleur did it. Baltimore Orioles pitcher Jim Palmer tried it. Michael Jordan had a comeback or three, and Chelios shares a bond with the former Bull beyond an affinity for Chicago and the old Stadium.
This isn't like baseball, where you have to wear the hat of one team. Chicago and the Blackhawks was a fabulous experience for me. I went to the [Stanley Cup] parade. That's what I feel for the Blackhawks. If I were to wear a hat, it would be a U.S.A. hat. That would please everybody, wouldn't it? Hopefully. - Chris Chelios
Jordan was cut from his high school team. Chelios, all 130 pounds of him, was a fixture at Mount Carmel, but was unable to crack a college squad and was twice shown the door in Canada’s junior ranks. So he joined father Gus’ restaurant business in San Diego and flipped burgers when he wasn’t working at gas stations.
Cheli persevered, wound up at the University of Wisconsin, switched from center to the blue line, got drafted fifth by the Canadiens in 1981 (40th overall) and never looked back. On the contrary, with Chelios on the ice, it was opponents who peered over their shoulder. He possessed a mean streak during an era when such a characterization constituted the highest form of praise.
When the Blackhawks traded beloved Denis Savard to Montreal for Chelios, Chicago rued the departure of a future Hall of Famer. But both individuals, upon reflection, thought a change of scenery was beneficial, and it did not take long for fans here to embrace Chelios’ style of greeting foes in ill-humor.
“I had a wild side,” Chelios admitted. “Undisciplined. I took some cheap penalties. The good old elbow always came in handy. Especially the left one, the top hand. You could take a guy out, and it only cost you two minutes. Where would I be in the NHL with today’s rules? Either starting a suspension or ending one.”
Chelios scored back-to-back overtime winners during a 1995 playoff sweep of Vancouver, but a championship in Chicago was not to be. So, with the Blackhawks embarking on a youth movement, he accepted a trade to the Red Wings—the franchise for which he promised he would never, ever log a single shift.
“I still hear about that from Chicago fans,” said Chelios with a chuckle. “Can’t a guy change his mind?”
Remember that. To repeat, he looks like he could still play.