In uniform, Chris Chelios was as subtle as a tornado. In print, he retains an edge.
“Broken hands heal,” Chelios says. “Fingers heal. The pain that comes from losing does not.”
Thus, he sets the table for a meaty new autobiography, “Made In America,” authored with Kevin Allen, veteran USA Today sportswriter who soon will follow the iconic former defenseman into hockey’s Hall of Fame.
Chelios’ stance on inflicting damage to the human anatomy stems from the book’s introduction, penned by Wayne Gretzky. They are buddies who opposed each other on occasion, but never during crunch time—the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Had they met in the postseason, Chelios volunteers that he would have had to break The Great One’s hand.
So it goes throughout this lively autobiography of a Chicago original, who logged 26 years in the National Hockey League as the quintessential Exhibit A of a guy detested by foes but embraced by teammates. Chelios is retired at 52 (we think), still carries his playing weight of 187 pounds and admits that his career was well-timed.
“Under today’s rules,” Chelios says, “I would be serving some kind of suspension every month.”
Was he a bit of a hellion? Well, on the day he learned of that blockbuster trade from the Montreal Canadiens to his hometown Blackhawks for Denis Savard—June 29, 1990—Chelios had just been discharged after a brief incarceration due to an encounter with police.
Chelios’ vocabulary is not quite as unwashed as one finds in Allen’s recent collaboration with Jeremy Roenick, an inexhaustible running mate who describes Chelios as the “Godfather of American hockey.”
But their stories are different. Chelios was a beach bum in San Diego suffering psychic wounds of being cut from numerous teams when he placed one more phone call to the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. They needed a defenseman, and Chelios—then a smallish center—lied. He went there, found the blue line and, on pure grit, built a résumé that elevated him to the University of Wisconsin, then the NHL.
Besides that singular example of fudging truth, “Made In America” is all about Chelios’ brand of brutal honesty. He details how there was no place to hide in hockey-crazed Montreal, where as a foreign-born captain of the Canadiens, he was scrutinized in English and French. With the Blackhawks, Chelios says: “You would need an army of psychologists to explain our team’s relationship” with Head Coach Mike Keenan.
Chelios was forever one of the boys. With the 1984 U.S. Olympic squad in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, he slipped a tape recorder into meetings where excitable Head Coach Lou Vairo issued motivational speeches, then played them later for guys at the back of the bus. Chelios was the ultimate rink rat, but he loved to laugh.
In Montreal, Chelios was reprimanded for missing curfew with another fun-loving sidekick, Petr Svoboda. Jacques Laperriere, an assistant coach, had called their room the night before, and nobody answered. But Chelios craftily had implored the front desk for a favor, and upon informing Laperriere that he had rung the wrong room, Chelios produced the new key. Case dismissed.
Chelios has lavish praise for Bill Wirtz, the Blackhawks’ owner and president, who regretted dealing Savard and eventually brought him back. Chelios was delighted to play in Chicago and wished to play there forever, but as years passed, he deduced that the organization’s vision for the future did not mesh with his. Chelios felt he had plenty of shifts left in the tank, and an entire chapter—“I Never Wanted to Leave”—thoroughly covers his move to the Detroit Red Wings, a rival for whom Chelios pledged he would never skate.
When he made his first visit with Detroit to the United Center, Chelios was booed so loudly that Head Coach Scotty Bowman told him to vanish. The crowd was getting into the game too enthusiastically for Bowman, who also receives rave reviews. Chelios got dressed and watched the third period in a suite with Michael Jordan, who panned Chicago fans for their anger.
Chelios won his second and third Stanley Cups with the Red Wings, where he now serves in an executive capacity. In December 2010, after Chelios finally retired (we think), the Blackhawks honored him with a Heritage Night. Chelios again heard some catcalls, and he says, “Frankly, I was saddened by the lack of forgiveness.” He felt embarrassed for his family, at least until he glanced toward daughter Caley nearby on the ice. She was “actually laughing her head off.”
Whether you are a Blackhawks fan who can’t quite let it go, or just a hockey fan anxious for a terrific read, “Made In America” is a worthy choice. Besides, as the godfather reminds once more for emphasis, “Even though I’m living in Michigan, Chris Chelios is a Chicagoan.”