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With Cup No. 3 in sight, age is irrelevant to Chelios

by Larry Wigge

Chris Chelios has been a warrior on defense since breaking into the NHL with Montreal in 1984. Chelios highlights
Even if some of those old bones click a little when he walks or skates these days, turning 46 in January wasn't a sign that Chris Chelios is ready to say goodbye to the game he loves so much -- and still plays so well.

The Chicago native has won two Stanley Cups and owns three Norris trophies as the NHL's best defenseman. He no longer may play 25 fiercely-competitive minutes a night -- like he did for years in Montreal, Chicago and Detroit --  but never underestimate what his experience, guts and passion do for the Red Wings as they try to win their fourth Stanley Cup in 12 years and first since 2002.

Ask Chelios for his favorite memory in sports and doesn't hesitate to name the 2002 Cup win with the Red Wings.

"I think I set a record for most years between Stanley Cups," Chelios laughed. "It was important for me, because a lot of people doubted me, saying, 'I had lost a step or three.' But the best part of winning the Cup in 2002 was having my boys, Dean and Jake, on the ice on skates with me when we were lifting the Stanley Cup in celebration."

Six years later, he has a chance to add another Stanley Cup ring -- and some more I-told-you-so's -- to his resume.

Dallas Stars center Mike Modano won't hear of any talk about Chelios' abilities diminishing.

"See the bruise I have here and the one I have here?" Modano said during the Western Conference Finals, pointing to an upper and lower body blemish. "Don't tell me he's 40-something and he can't do this and can't do that. His stick slashes, crosschecks and elbows are just as sharp as they were win I came into the NHL in 1989."

"No one is more competitive,” Anaheim’s Doug Weight said during the first round of the Playoffs. “No one hates to lose more than Cheli. His anticipation skills make him one of the toughest players in the game to play against. Put him into a 1-on-1 situation and he never loses those competitive juices, whether he's playing against an 18-year-old kid or a 35-year-old veteran.

"He's no friend when you're on the other side, but he's a great teammate if you are lucky enough to be with him. I know he hates hearing statistics, but his longevity is ridiculous. I love this game as much as anyone, but you won't find me out there banging and fighting when I'm 44 or 45 or 46."

Ask Chelios about being the oldest player in the NHL at 46 and his smile turns sour.

"That number, 46, is like a dark cloud hanging over my head,” he said. “I hate it. So I'm 46. I'm not looking at this as my last season and a farewell tour of the NHL. Not hardly. I'll put my performance up against nearly anyone in the game today -- 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds, whatever."

Chelios, one of the game's best-conditioned and hardest-working athletes, has been a warrior on defense since breaking into the NHL with Montreal in 1984.

"The last couple of years I haven't missed a hit that was there in front of me," he said. "Now they tell me I have to skip the morning skate or a game here or there because I'm the oldest player in the NHL. It doesn't make sense."

That goes back to Chelios' passion for playing the game and the fact that each summer he goes to Los Angeles to train with players like Jeremy Roenick and Rob Blake, who drive one another to continue to be the best.

There's no midstream with the often-funny and always-competitive Chicago-born defenseman. He's an American icon, right up there with the likes of Dick Butkus and Michael Jordan. Chelios often can be confused for an angry old man, but that's just his grouchy exterior talking. No one does more charitable work in and around Chicago and Detroit, but Chelios quickly goes from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde when he's on the ice.

He's smart, but he's also one of the most relentless defensive players ever, bordering on being just plain nasty. His biggest asset is he comes to play every night, and he doesn't give a damn about anything or anybody.

"He stands up to everyone ... and backs down to no one," Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said.

His coming-to-America and struggling to succeed story -- and making it -- is not outrageous to Chelios, who said the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding was a remake of his family's life. Gus Chelios left Greece as a young man in 1951 and worked in restaurants, climbing from busboy to manager while he learned English. A few years later, he opened his own place in downtown Chicago. It was the first of many places. It was in Chicago where Gus met his wife, Susan, at a Sears store. And it was there in Chicago where Susan bought Chris his first pair of skates, for $5 at Ace Hardware.

It gets even better when you consider the move to Poway, Calif., where Gus was wanted to try some new restaurant ideas in San Diego. It was there that Chris became a rink rat, riding his bicycle to whatever rink he could find ice time at. And that, in turn, led to a scholarship to U.S. International, although at 5-foot-5 and 160 pounds, he was too small to make the team.

"Not bad for a guy who was the son of a Greek immigrant living in Chicago and then moved to San Diego,” Chelios said. “The odds were a million to one that I would ever play hockey. I played a little high school hockey in Chicago, but I was really a bigger fan of the Bears and Dick Butkus. When we moved to California, I remember being on the beach in La Jolla, hoping to get a tryout for the U.S. International University team. On the beach, can you imagine that?

"They had no interest in me. But Bobby Parker, one of the players, gave me the phone number of a coach he thought needed a spare defenseman."

When Chelios got home, he called Larry Billows, coach of the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Saskatchewan Tier II Junior League. He played in Moose Jaw for two seasons, which earned him an invitation to play at the University of Wisconsin and the first of four U.S. Olympic berths (and don't be surprised if he makes it five in 2010).

"I got a lot of ice time and weight-room time in Moose Jaw," Chelios said. "I grew four inches and 25 pounds my first year of junior hockey. When Wisconsin called, I began to think I might have a chance at playing in the NHL."

"The thing that stands out when you’re talking about Cheli is how he competes from the opening faceoff until the game-ending siren. Anytime there’s a battle to be won, whether it's along the boards or around the net, Chris will be there." - Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom
It was at Wisconsin where Chris met his wife, Tracee. Like Gus' family, Chris' includes four children -- Dean, Jake, Caley and Tara.

"The thing that stands out when you’re talking about Cheli is how he competes from the opening faceoff until the game-ending siren," Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom said. "Anytime there’s a battle to be won, whether it's along the boards or around the net, Chris will be there."

He's 46 and he hasn’t lost a thing. His longevity is ridiculous. No one is more competitive. No one hates to lose more than Chelios.

This season was Chelios' 24th in the NHL -- and he’s made the playoffs every year except 1998.

"All I know is I think I still have a lot to give the game of hockey as a player," Chelios said. "How much would I want to win another Stanley Cup? Do you have a couple of years to hear my answer?"

While those in management insist Chelios has been taking it one year at a time, the Chicago native hints -- with a snarl -- that he could play effectively until he's 50.

Red Wings GM Ken Holland shakes his head and says simply: "I'll keep signing him to one-year deals until he turns 50 or I get fired. Whichever comes first."

There’s a playful look in Holland’s eyes when he’s asked about the ultra-competitive Chelios, who Holland obtained at the trade deadline in March 1999 from Chicago for defenseman Anders Eriksson and Detroit’s first-round picks in 1999 and 2001.

"It’s funny," Holland said. "I talk to him about reduced minutes, a reduced role every year. He just tells me I'm wrong and he'll show me on the ice in training camp ... and darned if he doesn’t.

"You're talking about one of the most strong-willed athletes that I've ever been around."

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