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At 48, Chelios still hungry for success

by Chuck Gormley
Chris Chelios is, by all accounts, a freak of nature. In a good way, of course.

At a time when most men his age are dumping money into individual retirement accounts, Chelios is making another comeback, this time as a 48-year-old defenseman for the Atlanta Thrashers.

Chelios played his first NHL game since May 27, 2009, when he suited up against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. For a little perspective, Chelios is 30 years older than his youngest teammate, rookie forward Evander Kane.

In 26 NHL seasons with Montreal, Chicago and Detroit, Chelios has accomplished just about everything humanly possible as a professional athlete. His name is on the Stanley Cup and the Norris Trophy three times. He's played in four Winter Olympics, two Canada Cups and one World Cup of Hockey, as well as 11 NHL All-Star Games.

So why come back now, after playing 46 games with the AHL Chicago Wolves?

"I don't know," Chelios said. "Our teams, Detroit especially the last 10 years, we had a lot of success. Not being able to crack that lineup, there were a lot of other teams I thought I could help. And then things have gone very well in Chicago with the Wolves. I'm just lucky to have an opportunity and I want to make the best of it. Obviously, the goal here is to make the playoffs and hopefully I can help them."

The Thrashers dropped their fourth-straight game Thursday, a 2-1 loss in Columbus that dropped them six points behind the eighth-place Boston Bruins. Chelios logged 13:14 in ice time and was a minus-1 while playing alongside Johnny Oduya.

He figured into the first goal of the game -- in the wrong way -- when R.J. Umberger flipped the puck from a bad angle to the right of the net. Chelios went to one knee to block it, but the puck ricocheted toward Johan Hedberg and slipped between the goaltender's pads.

"It's like a playoff game," Chelios said after his new team's fourth loss in a row. "You see how one goal can be the difference."

Chelios said his love of the game and his drive to reach another NHL postseason, have kept his comeback hopes alive.

"That has a lot to do with it," he said. "I've had a lot of success from the team standpoint. I have an opportunity here and I'm hoping to make the best of it."

Chelios acknowledged that his on-ice presence should help 19-year-old defenseman Zach Bogosian, the No. 3 pick in the 2008 Entry Draft by the Thrashers. But it's his off-ice composure and remarkable work ethic that General Manager Don Waddell hopes will rub off on his young team.

"Chris has been an outstanding leader and mentor for our young players in Chicago and his level of play has made him deserving of this opportunity," Waddell told the Thrashers' Web site. "He's a tremendous competitor who strengthens our group of defensemen and instantly adds a veteran presence to our locker room."

Chelios said it might take a few games to assert himself vocally, but would like to see the Thrashers take themselves seriously as a playoff team.

"In hockey every game is a playoff game," he said. "It's a tight race. The best thing I can do for this team is to play well defensively and hopefully give these guys a little composure and it rubs off. You always learn from watching, at least that's what I did. I hope I can contribute in some way and the best thing I can do is play solid defensively."

Chelios, who is four years younger than Gordie Howe was when he played for the Hartford Whalers in 1980, credits long-time trainer T.R. Goodman for enabling him to compete against men half his age.

"I've just been fortunate with the injury bug," he said. "I haven't had too many significant injuries. My recovery because of my training helps a lot. I've had the same trainer for 17 or 18 years. He's always got a little edge on everybody, that's the way I look at it, and so far it's worked out good.

Chelios said that when he recognized there was no future for him in Detroit, he looked into playing closer to his home in Chicago -- and the AHL Wolves, the Thrashers' farm team, provided him with that opportunity. In 46 games with the Wolves, Chelios recorded 5 goals, 17 assists and 24 penalty minutes. 

"If it weren't for my family ties, I probably wouldn't even have done that," Chelios said. "I have my parents and a son in Chicago. It was kind of a trial thing and it worked out. It couldn't have gone any better than the way it has this year."

"In hockey every game is a playoff game. It's a tight race. The best thing I can do for this team is to play well defensively and hopefully give these guys a little composure and it rubs off. You always learn from watching, at least that's what I did. I hope I can contribute in some way, and the best thing I can do is play solid defensively." -- Chris Chelios

It was during his time in Chicago that Chelios realized he still has the hockey sense and durability to play in the NHL, so when Waddell made the call, he didn't hesitate.

"You always want that. I didn't know about being called up. At least being successful with Chicago kept me hanging around, basically. The fact that I got off to a pretty good start in Chicago had a lot to do with it."

Chelios has been to the playoffs in 24 of his 26 NHL seasons. The last time his team missed the playoffs was 1999, when he was with the Blackhawks. While he's not making any promises this spring, Chelios wants nothing more than to get another crack at the Stanley Cup.

"It's only been a day," he said. "It can happen. You never know. I've always had that thought process since my second year in the League. We were in fourth place in Montreal my first year but ended up making the playoffs and going pretty far. Then we won (the Stanley Cup) in my second year. You never know what's going to happen. A team can get on a roll and hopefully with these guys we can get some momentum."

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