Video: Chris Chelios was fierce defender in 26-season career
"Nobody embodies the passion and love for the game the way Chris Chelios does. Nobody," Chicago Blackhawks teammate Jeremy Roenick said.
The public perception of Chelios was that he was one of the League's most despised villains. The truth was Chelios was always among the NHL's most respected players. Seemingly everyone who played with him told tales of his leadership and aura.
"He was nicknamed 'The Godfather of USA Hockey' because the guys all loved him," former NHL forward Bill Guerin said.
Games: 1,651 | Goals: 185 | Assists: 763 | Points: 948
Former Detroit Red Wings tough-guy forward Darren McCarty said he hated Chelios when the defenseman played for the Blackhawks because Chelios always targeted Steve Yzerman and Sergei Fedorov, Detroit's most skilled players. After Chelios was traded to the Red Wings in 1999, McCarty was stunned to discover the troll under the bridge was actually a kindhearted person who made it his daily mission to take care of his flock.
"He is the most loyal teammate you will ever meet. He always invites the young guys to hang out with him and when a veteran player needs something he's the guy who knows someone who can help you out," McCarty said with a laugh.
While he was running a concierge service for his friends, Chelios found time to play more games than any defenseman in NHL history (1,651), win the Norris Trophy three times, make the First or Second All-Star Team seven times and win the Stanley Cup three times: once with the Montreal Canadiens and twice with the Red Wings. He also helped the United States win the 1996 World Cup of Hockey and won a silver medal with the Americans in the 2002 Olympics.
Chelios played in the NHL until age 48, matching Gordie Howe's record of playing in 26 seasons.
His workout habits are legendary. "He might be the hardest-working athlete I've ever met," McCarty said. "This is a guy who rides a stationary bike in the sauna."
USA Hockey general manager Jim Johannson played with Chelios at the University of Wisconsin and remembers vividly how he had no use for shortcuts in practice.
"This story will sound corny, but it's true," Johannson said. "After drills, coaches would tell us to take a hard lap. Chelios went around both nets every time. Everyone saw him do that, and the next time there would be four guys doing that. Next time it was seven guys doing that. Pretty soon you are on the right track because of Chris Chelios."
Committed training didn't stop when Chelios retired. Twenty-five mile bike rides remain a staple. He keeps his weight near 187 pounds, which is what he weighed when he signed with the Canadiens after playing in the 1984 Olympics.
"I think he's still a harder worker retired than most players are when they are playing," said USA Hockey executive Lou Vairo, Chelios' Olympic coach in '84.
Vairo said he saw the unwavering dedication to the sport in Chelios the first time he watched him play, at a USA Hockey 15-year-old summer camp in Squaw Valley, Calif.
"The first time I saw him I loved him," Vairo said. "He was the most serious player on the ice. What you can say about Chelios is that he played to win every day he was on the ice."
Vairo said Chelios played with a broken foot during the Olympics and never considered sitting out.
"He has the ability to will a team to a win just with his attitude," Vairo said. "If there is a way to win a game, Chelios will find it."
The Red Wings acquired Chelios from the Blackhawks in a trade in 1999 because they believed he could replace feisty defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov, whose career was ended tragically by a limousine accident. Konstantinov forced opponents to keep their heads up, and Chelios played the same way.
At the time, Chelios was 37. The Red Wings gave up young defenseman Anders Eriksson and two first-round draft picks.
"This trade was supposedly to fill a gap for maybe a year or two," former Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman said. "For this guy to keep playing for another eight or nine years was hard to believe. He just kept going."
Even as a newcomer, Chelios set a tone for the work ethic in the Detroit dressing room.
"In the afternoon, everyone would be gone, and Chelios would still be there, working out," Bowman said.
Chelios ended up playing parts of 10 seasons with the Red Wings, after playing parts of nine seasons with the Blackhawks and parts of seven with the Canadiens.
An Illinois native who was born in Chicago, Chelios had originally hoped to remain a Blackhawk for the rest of his career. But Chelios and the Blackhawks didn't see eye-to-eye during a contract negotiation, and he accepted the trade to the Red Wings.
"I think most people in my position in 1999 would have done the same thing," Chelios said.
Chelios still lives in the Detroit area and owns Cheli's Chili Bar downtown, but has said continually that he is very proud of his Chicago roots. The Blackhawks have honored him since his retirement, and Chicago fans slowly have come around to viewing him again as a favorite son.
Unquestionably, Chelios had a lasting impact on the organization. He helped the Blackhawks reach the 1992 Stanley Cup Final, where they lost to the Mario Lemieux-led Pittsburgh Penguins.
"Chris Chelios changed the culture of the Chicago Blackhawks," former Chicago coach Mike Keenan said. "He was one of the fiercest competitors I ever coached. He was without fear, courageous in his play, a risk-taker, but also an intelligent hockey player."
Chelios loved the game to the point that he didn't know how to say goodbye. After he parted ways with the Red Wings after the 2008-09 season, he couldn't bring himself to retire. He played 46 games with Chicago of the American Hockey League in 2009-10 and seven games with the Atlanta Thrashers that season to close out his NHL career.
He played his final NHL game at 48 years, 71 days old. Only Gordie Howe, at 52 years, 11 days, played in the League at an older age.
"I used to tell Gordie not to worry -- his record was safe," Chelios said. "But to be perfectly honest, I never ruled out the possibility that I would continue to playing in my 50s."
Chelios didn't play as effectively as he would have liked with the Thrashers. He said he believes he could have helped them had he started with them in training camp. Then who knows what would have happened?
In addition to being an NHL star performer, Chelios was among the League's more prominent celebrities. He was a colorful figure. When he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013, his guest list included tennis legend John McEnroe and actors John Cusack, Cuba Gooding Jr., Tony Danza, D.B. Sweeney and Jeremy Piven. Michael Jordan was there. Chelios is friends with plenty of celebrities from other sports. His friendships continually brought more attention to his sport.
"When he does karaoke, it's with Eddie Vedder or Kid Rock," Guerin said. "When he plays beach volleyball it's with Gabrielle Reece. When he surfs it's with Laird Hamilton. When he plays tennis, it's with John McEnroe."
Chelios had such an overwhelming reputation as a leader and warrior that it often overshadowed the reality that he was also a skilled offensive player. He scored more than 70 points three times in his career, and reached double figures in goals eight times. He scored 20 times for the Canadiens in 1987-88.
"He didn't look good doing it," Roenick said. "He wasn't graceful. He wasn't the Paul Coffey type, the smooth-skating defenseman who stood out. He had a choppy look. He wasn't fluid. But he always got there. He was always in position. He was always frustrating to play against. He always hurt you in some way."
Nothing spurs debate in American hockey circles quite like the argument over who should be viewed as the greatest player in United States history. Mike Modano, Frank Brimsek and Brian Leetch would probably all receive votes, but Chelios, who played in four Olympics, might be the sentimental favorite because of his long association with wearing the jersey for USA Hockey.
"He is Captain America," Roenick said.
Chelios' career has been a testimony to perseverance and following one's dreams. Even though he resided in San Diego as a teenager, Chelios found a way to live his dream and be a professional hockey player. He left San Diego to play with a junior team in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to continue his hockey journey. He went from there to Wisconsin.
"The two words to describe him are passion and loyalty," Roenick said. "He is a proud, proud, proud man. He's a proud American. He lives and breathes USA Hockey. He throws his love and passion into it. He's an inspiration to me."
In December 2016, Chelios became highly emotional when he talked about the United States team that won the 1996 World Cup being inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame.
"When he started to tear up, we knew he had that in him because he cares so much," Guerin said. "When you break through his crust, he's a warm guy."
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