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Chris Chelios lived for the playoffs

Defenseman set NHL records with 24 years in postseason, 266 games

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Chris Chelios had no idea his 24 years in the Stanley Cup Playoffs were an NHL record until someone told him. All he knew was that his 266 playoff games were an NHL record, and that former Detroit Red Wings teammate Nicklas Lidstrom fell three games short of catching him.

But if you know Chelios, you know he isn't just spouting clichés when he says he never paid attention to things like that. It's no surprise he was unaware of the significance April 12, 2007, when he stepped onto the ice for the Red Wings against the Calgary Flames in the Western Conference First Round at Joe Louis Arena and passed Ray Bourque.

The whole reason he made the NHL and stayed in the NHL so long is that he played for the sake of playing, for the skate of competing, for the sake of winning.

"Playoffs are what it's all about," Chelios said. "I was fortunate enough to play in a lot of them."

Chelios grew up in Chicago, but at age 17 he was living in San Diego, out of competitive hockey after failing to walk on to the startup program at United States International University, when he bumped into a guy on the beach who was leaving USIU to play junior at home in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

The guy suggested Chelios come to Moose Jaw too. Long story short, Chelios did, moved from forward to defense, and blossomed. He played two seasons and was selected in the second round (No. 40) by the Montreal Canadiens in the 1981 NHL Draft. He played two seasons at the University of Wisconsin and one with the U.S. Olympic team. After the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, he joined the Habs.

Video: Memories: Chelios appears in 22nd playoffs

But he had gone to Moose Jaw to play because he loved it. He wasn't thinking about making the NHL. And even when he joined the Habs, he didn't think he would stick. He struggled in 12 games at the end of the 1983-84 season and figured he would spend his career in the minors.

The playoffs changed everything. He scored his first NHL goal in his first playoff game, beating Bruins goaltender Pete Peeters with a slapper from the point at Boston Garden.

"It was like someone flipped a switch for me," Chelios said. "I got confident. I've always prided myself on playoffs. We won the NCAAs [at Wisconsin in 1983]. It's a step faster. Some guys never could adjust to that, and I thrived on it."

Chelios appeared in the playoffs seven times with the Canadiens, winning the Cup in 1986; seven times with the Chicago Blackhawks, advancing as far as the Final in 1992; and 10 times with the Red Wings, winning the Cup in 2002 and 2008.

Toward the end, in his mid-40s, he played a lesser role as a third-pair defenseman, penalty killer and mentor.

"At my age it was perfect," Chelios said. "The only times it really bothered you was because of the competitiveness in you. You thought you could help more, especially in the playoffs. Not to think I should have played ahead of someone, but when you lose, you always think you could have contributed and helped more."

The best part?

In 2009-10, Chelios played for Chicago of the American Hockey League, not hoping to return to the NHL, just to play. He went to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics to help the United States and didn't train for two weeks. When the Atlanta Thrashers called he jumped at the chance to play in the NHL again, but struggled in seven games.

The day after the Thrashers were eliminated from the playoff race he returned to the AHL. He battled through a 25th playoff run as a professional at age 48, through 14 games, all the way to overtime of Game 7 of the West Division Final against Texas.

"I'll never forget the goal," Chelios said. "I threw it up the glass. It hit a stanchion, and Jamie Benn got it and scored the game-winner in overtime. And they went on to win the Calder Cup. You always say you want to win your last game. Well, that was my chance, and I blew it."

Forever the competitor.

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