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Chat with Parker sparked Chelios' career

by Dan Rosen

TORONTO -- What if Bobby Parker wasn't at the beach that day? What if he never walked over to Chris Chelios to ask him about hockey? What if?

"He probably wouldn't have played," Parker said Saturday from the Hockey Hall of Fame, where Chelios will be enshrined Monday as a member of the Class of 2013.

It was fate, nothing more, that Parker was at the beach in San Diego that day 34 years ago. It was also fate that Parker approached Chelios and asked him what he was going to do next about hockey.

Chelios had just been cut from the upstart college team at the United States International University, the same team Parker had made. Parker wasn't sticking around, though. The rink was old and ratty. The team wasn't what he was looking for. He was heading back home to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, but first he saw Chelios on the beach and figured he would go talk to him.

Had it not been for that conversation, Chelios might have become a household name in what was nothing more than a house league in San Diego. Instead that conversation helped pave the way for Chelios to get an opportunity with the Moose Jaw Canucks in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. That paved his way to the University of Wisconsin and eventually to the Montreal Canadiens as the No. 40 pick in the 1981 NHL Draft.

"The rest is history," Parker said.

Indeed it is.

Chelios won the Norris Trophy three times. He won the Stanley Cup three times. He played in the Olympics three times for the United States and won a silver medal in 2002. He won gold at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. He played until he was 48 years old and has the record for the most games played by a defenseman (1,651) and most playoff games played by anyone (266).

It's possible, if not likely, that none of it happens without his chance encounter with Parker.

"He talked to the right person because I always believed that you should be given the opportunity, but it's up to you to prove that you can play," Parker said.

Parker gave Chelios his phone number and the name and number of the coach in Moose Jaw, Larry Billows. He told him about the Moose Jaw Canucks and about the SJHL.

"It was a great league and there were a lot of great players," Parker said. "If you wanted to go to college, that was probably one of the better junior leagues in Canada at the time. I said, 'If you want to learn the game, it's a great place to come.' He told me how he got cut from a few other teams."

Chelios gave it a chance. He called Billows. He was turned down.

"I went and talked to the coach, talked a little bit about him, and this is the real funny part of the story, all of a sudden [Billows] changed his mind," Parker said. "He said, 'Chris is coming,' and they started writing in the newspaper that we've got this defenseman coming from San Diego. I'm thinking, 'Man, he hasn't even ever played defense.' I had no idea what was going to happen."

The Canucks had to pay Chelios' way. He couldn't afford a trip to Canada.

They did and Chelios went along for the ride. Parker said he immediately had a presence.

"I remember the first time he came into the rink, we were playing a game and it was really weird," Parker said. "At the time I didn't know he would be a great player, but he would stand there and you just knew he was there. It was really neat. I'll always remember that, seeing him for the first time. He started practicing and he got into a game after a week of practicing."

Chelios excelled despite never having played defense before. He played two-and-a-half seasons for Moose Jaw and had 87 points in 54 games in 1980-81.

"I watch a lot of hockey and I played a lot, and what really amazed me is [defense] was like his natural position," Parker said. "What also happened is he grew a couple of inches, put on like 15 pounds in the course of a year. You could see obviously he had a great passion for the game and over the course of two years I just saw this amazing player emerge. Oh, the development. I have never seen anybody get so good at something so fast."

Parker was his defense partner.

"Of all the players I played with, he was probably the easiest player to play with," Parker said. "You always knew what he was going to do or where he was going to go. I mean, he was just easy to play with."

The story, though, takes a sour twist for Parker right here. Chelios' last year in Moose Jaw was also Parker's last year of competitive hockey.

He was born with poor vision in one of his eyes, but over the course of Chelios' time in Moose Jaw, Parker started losing vision in the other eye as well. His dream was to play in the NHL and he thinks if his eyes were right he would have had a decent shot at doing so, but it wasn't meant to be.

Parker had trouble with the lights in the arena. He still has problems. He doesn't drive.

"It was almost like I went to San Diego, met Chris, and then he lived my dream," Parker said. "I tell you, it took me a long time to deal with that."

Parker struggled with his lost dream and his poor vision. He lost touch with Chelios, but he followed his career.

When Chelios got to the NHL, Parker wondered how long he could stick around.

"I'm thinking once he made the NHL, 'Man, if he plays five or six years, that'll be pretty amazing,' " Parker said. "Then he's at 10 and I'm like, 'Well, if he plays 12 or 15…?' Then it just went on and on and on."

He sensed Chelios had a chance to make the Hall of Fame after he won the Norris Trophy in 1989 and again in 1993. Chelios won the Norris Trophy for a third time in 1996.

"Then you're like the best defenseman in the world," Parker said. "His resume started to build, his career went on, he started piling up most games. I thought around his 15th year he'll probably be inducted at some point when he was done."

Parker and Chelios reconnected near the end of Chelios' playing career. Parker is enjoying Hall of Fame Weekend with him.

"I'm amazed at what he's done because I saw it right from the start," Parker said. "It was like fate."


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