Now we know why Chris Chelios
still is playing professional hockey for the Detroit Red Wings
at the age of 46 – he's got two boys approaching college age. Nobody ever retired with college-tuition bills on the horizon.
OK, so that's not actually true, but with two sons who love hockey as much as he does, Chelios sees the opportunity for them to follow in his footsteps through USA Hockey developmental programs en route to getting a college education.
Chelios was an outstanding teen hockey player on the south side of Chicago, but he had to go out of the area to get the competition he needed to improve. He found it in USA Hockey development programs, and he wound up attending the University of Wisconsin.
Chelios, the NHL's active leader with 1,601 games played, is anything but an ingrate. The man USA Today's Kevin Allen called the greatest American-born player has represented his country in four Winter Olympics, three Canada Cups, Rendez-Vous '87, the 1982 World Junior Championship, the 1994 World Championship and the 1996 and 2004 World Cups of Hockey. He considers victory in the ’96 World Cup among his greatest thrills in hockey.
Chelios also was a member of the 1986 Montreal Canadiens and 2002 Detroit Red Wings teams that won the Stanley Cup.
Showing no signs of slowing down, Chelios said if his country calls again, he would be eager to serve again, as a player, coach or manager. He said his current level of responsibility with the Red Wings, where he's averaging 17 minutes a game, may leave him short of the necessary conditioning. Still, he's plus-10 in 54 games at hockey's highest level, so don't count him out.
"It's been a great honor representing my country and being able to see the transition of USA Hockey over the past 24 years," Chelios said this week in a USA Hockey teleconference in support of Hockey Weekend Across America, Feb. 15-17. "I owe it to all these developing camps, coaching, and it's been great watching this program develop.
"I started my youth hockey career in Chicago, not the caliber of a Minnesota or Massachusetts or Michigan-type of hockey. As the years went on, it grew and we could compete with those other states. I was very fortunate that I was able to hook into some of the U.S. programs at the time. I go back to Squaw Valley with Art Berglund and Bob Johnson, their camp that they held initially before they moved out to Colorado and started USA Hockey.
"I've had the opportunity to watch USA Hockey develop and grow and finally be able to compete at the same level as all the other countries, including competing against Canada and proving that in the '96 World Cup. I thought that was one of the biggest steps that I've taken as a U.S. player."
Chelios was a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team that had the unenviable task of following the "Miracle On Ice" team of four years earlier. He was in the first wave of players inspired by the victory at Lake Placid, and in the ensuing years joined with a group of younger American players to win the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the silver medal at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
"I still go back to the 1980 Olympics, which I feel paved the way for players like myself and (Pat) LaFontaine, Al Iafrate and Dave Jensen," Chelios said. "It really made the hockey world aware of U.S. hockey and its growth and development and it happened at a rapid pace once the '80 team accomplished what they did.
"Everybody wanted to play hockey then because the whole world was watching those Olympics and what they overcame to win the gold medal. I was very fortunate because of their success that I was able to continue and get involved with junior national programs, World Cups, Olympics and so on.
The Soviets were shocked by their defeat in 1980 and did a great job of reloading for 1984, when they won gold at Sarajevo. The Czechs finished second with a powerful team led by Jiri Hrdina, Frantisek Cernik and Igor Liba. The Swedes finished third while the United States finished seventh.
Still, Chelios considers that Olympics, his first, and the 2002 Olympics at Salt Lake City, his most successful, as his favorite Olympic years. He had high praise for those team's coaches, Lou Vairo and Herb Brooks, respectively.
"Vairo had a pretty difficult task," Chelios conceded. "He was trying to make that transition. I don't know if you'd call it a European style of play, but he had coached in Europe, he was familiar with their systems, and he tried to instill that in us. He only had 60-something games to do that.
"I can honestly say that I had never played that style of hockey in college or in juniors. So it was a transition for those U.S. players, not necessarily because of the big ice, but because of the free-wheeling and the puck possession and the European style of play. It was great. I mean, a lot of skating.”
And he wouldn’t mind another shot at it.
Chelios hopes he can play in a fifth Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver. If not, he said he hoped he could be involved at some level, either coaching or management. He'd love to see his boys compete for an Olympic berth when their time comes.
"I've got two boys in Michigan hockey for the past eight years and I watch the seriousness and the coaching and how much it's improved. It's great to see. ... All these U.S. programs have been helping them to at least pursue that dream of going to college and playing for a Division I college team or any division college team.
"And, now with Hockey Weekend Across America, it's great. We talk about marketing to a broader group of fans and (building) hockey awareness in the United States. I can't say enough how much we need it.
"If you look at Canada, the way things are there, obviously it's their No. 1 sport. Hopefully, some day we'll be able to get to that caliber and raise the awareness around our country and develop our kids and get them more involved so we have that much more to choose from."