Brian Leetch and Chris Chelios were stalwart defensemen on United States national teams, winning the gold medal at the 1996 World Cup and a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics. Leetch was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2009.
I always tell people that Chris Chelios is America's version of Mark Messier.
They're similar in that they love the game and have a passion for it. They love to compete and winning and doing things as a group are very important to them.
They played with an edge, whether it was a stick up or a glove in the face. They would drop the gloves if they had to. You knew if you were in a competition with either of them it wasn't always going to be clean and you were going to get the worst of it because they would not back down.
Growing up, Brian Leetch knew Chris Chelios was a special player. When he got to know him better, he learned Chelios was a role model on and off the ice. (Photo: Getty Images, Jeff Vinnick/NHLI)
Off the ice they included everybody in the locker room no matter what the team was doing or going through. Being in the best physical condition possible was very important to them, and it was hard to find anybody who conditioned his body to compete the way Chelios did.
His conditioning allowed him to have such an intense compete level.
I'll never forget practicing with the U.S. National team and we'd be doing drills such as 1-on-1s or 2-on-2s; his intent was to not let the forwards over the blue line. He would bark at them, saying, "You guys aren't coming over." He'd get the other defense pairings together and tell them, "Don't let these guys come in."
Chelios was the guy who showed me that you could be an Olympian and a top professional.
We were all influenced by the famous 1980 team. Those guys provided the younger players the belief that you can play in the Olympics and go on to have NHL careers. I was curious to see the progression into the next group in 1984 and I knew Chelios was part of it so I watched him closely. I wanted to be part of the 1988 team as badly as I wanted to be in the NHL and I knew he could be a great influence on my career.
Chelios did so well starting off in Montreal. He made the All-Star Game and the All-Rookie team in 1985. If it wasn't for Mario Lemieux he would have won the Calder Trophy too. He became a Stanley Cup champion in 1986 and won the Norris Trophy for the first time in 1989. He would win it again in 1993.
People across the League respected him so much for the style of game he played. That's how he won and collected the individual trophies. As a U.S. defenseman I always said of Chelios, "That's our guy." Once I met him I started saying, "That's our leader too."
People used to say he wasn't a great skater, but his lateral movement was so good and his first two or three steps were so quick and explosive. That was from his conditioning.
He had the combination to read the game as well as anyone and then close on players as fast as anyone and with his brand of intensity. He didn't skate like Scott Niedermayer or Paul Coffey because his strides were choppier, but his first couple steps were so explosive.
When we would do those drills in practice there were times the forwards couldn't get over the blue line because of his ability to move laterally. In games Chelios would use that ability to get forwards into spots where they had nothing they could possibly do with the puck. He could close so well and be in the right spot the second before the opponent thought he would be there.
And from there his competitiveness took over again. He would drive confrontations. You knew as an opponent you were going to get yours, and if you didn't on that shift you knew the next time you were on the ice against him he was coming faster and harder. You were getting an elbow in the face or a stick in the gut. He would finish you.
Chelios was not the biggest man on the ice, but he was in the confrontation until the end. If he got knocked down he wouldn't be down for long. He battled and he could regularly play 30 minutes a night without getting tired.
He was driven to be the best offensive defenseman too. He was underrated in that way and he knew it.
If he wasn't on the power play he would say, "These guys think I'm just a defensive defenseman." He knew he wasn't and that's why it was good when he was in Montreal and Chicago because he was relied upon to do more. And he could do it all.
Chelios had knee issues for years and played through pain. He tried everything to calm the pain down and eventually he started managing it over time. He could because of his love for the game and his commitment to conditioning.
He never lost the desire to train. He still hasn't. He hasn't lost that compete level either.