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Chelios talks about US, 2010 Olympics, and more

by Staff Writer / Detroit Red Wings
Thanks very much, and good day, ladies and gentlemen, thanks for joining us. Dave Fisher, director of media public relations for USA Hockey here, and finishing off our series of teleconferences this week leading up to Hockey Week Across America, we're extremely excited about it, continue to receive more and more information of all the happenings going on around the country in this first year of this new initiative that USA Hockey is leading.  And certainly the hockey community at all levels from the grassroots programs right through the National Hockey League and everywhere in between has bought into it and is really taking great part in it. A lot of buzz, and we're certainly very excited about it. 

Just on a side note, too, as you may be aware, yesterday we announced that USA Hockey will host the 2009 International Ice Hockey Federation World Under-18 Men's Championship in Fargo, North Dakota, and Moorhead, Minnesota. That will be in April of 2009, and more on that later. We made that announcement there yesterday. It's a very enthusiastic group and we're looking forward to that, as well.

We couldn't think of a better way to kind of put an exclamation point on our series of teleconferences this week than to have Chris Chelios with us today. Certainly someone that needs no introduction, Kevin Allen of USA Today calls him the greatest American player of all time, still going at it at 46 years of age, most games played in the National Hockey League of any American-born players, reams and reams of honors. 

I think you know, he's played many, many times for the United States in international competition, including a four-time Olympian. We are certainly pleased to have him with us today.  I've asked Chris in his opening remarks to talk a little bit about his youth hockey experiences and people that he remembers and moments that come to mind, and also to talk to us a little bit about his view of how hockey has changed in the United States over the course of his lifetime. 

So without further ado, a pleasure to have Chris Chelios. 

CHRIS CHELIOS: Thanks. I guess just starting, my youth hockey career started in Chicago. Not the caliber of a Minnesota or Massachusetts or Michigan type hockey, but as the years went on, it grew, and we could compete with those other states.

Very fortunate that I was able to hook into some of the U.S. programs at the time, and I go back to Squaw Valley with Art Berglund; Bob Johnson, their camp that they held initially when I think they just moved out to Colorado and started USA Hockey.

But like you said, being around this long, 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.

And I still go back to the 1980 Olympics, which basically I feel paved the way for players like myself and (Pat) LaFontaine, Dave Jensen, 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.

You know, everybody wanted to play hockey then obviously 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. I've been there from the very beginning as far as I'm concerned, competing from a level where realistically we really never had a chance and then being able, like I said, 15 years later with the guys, the generations of Tkachuks, the Leeches, which were just after me, the Guerins, Weights, Roenicks, Modanos, and a lot of it is attributed to the U.S. programs that they've developed, the Ann Arbor program, the select camps. 

I've got two boys in Michigan hockey for the past eight years, and to watch how much the seriousness and the coaching and how much it's improved, you know, it's great to see. 

And now with this week's Hockey Day in the United States, it's great. We talk about marketing to a broader group of fans and making 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. 

But I believe we're going to be asking questions soon, and like I said, it's been a great honor representing my country and being able to see the transition of USA Hockey over the past 24 years. Like I said, I owe it to all these developing camps, coaching, and it's been great watching this program develop. 

Q. You spoke in your opening remarks about playing on a team that realistically didn't have a chance, and I guess you're probably referring to the 1984 team. There was a feeling I think in the United States of disappointment about the results, but when you look at that winning Soviet team, you know how good they were and how good the Czechs were. Could you take us back a little bit, talk about you being a young hockey player in Sarajevo, which was an amazing place, and playing for Lou Vairo. I know a lot of criticism came Lou's way, but whenever I talk to anybody, everybody talks about what a great teacher and a great coach. 

CHELIOS: Yeah, we had obviously a tough act to follow. All eyes were upon us, and the building of the 60?game schedule that we played, we traveled all around the U.S. playing exhibition games. 

When I meant unrealistic, I think I was going back a little bit further to my Junior National experience in Minnesota where we were basically embarrassed in front of the Russians, Team Canada. I'm not sure of the year, it was my first year after the University of Wisconsin, but like you said, Sarajevo, we had high expectations, we had a young team, but if anything could have went wrong, it did for us.  We played two weeks prior to the Olympics and beat team Canada 8-0. That might have been the kiss of death.

But like I said, it was a great experience, a learning process for a lot of the guys like myself and LaFontaine, David A. Jensen. I think Scott Fusco had a pretty decent career, Marc Behrend ended up going to Winnipeg for a short stint. But yeah, like I said, we came a long way.

It seemed like that next wave of players, (Mike) Modano, (Keith) Tkachuk, (Doug) Weight, (Bill) Guerin, those guys, (Mike) Richter, really gave us a boost, and I think that's what the USA Hockey program really developed and gave us a realistic chance of competing with that group of guys. 

Q. Sorry to barge in on the American call here, but I'm wondering if you've given any thought to 2010. It seems to me it looks like you're going to play until you're 60, and if so, do you think you've got a shot at making that team?

CHELIOS: Well, in the role I'm playing now, it's going to be tough. I mean, obviously I'm kind of comparing myself to a relief pitcher in baseball where I'm almost like a role -- basically penalty killing and defensive situations. If need be, I would love to play. To be honest with you right now, I'd be honored to play in those Olympics because I think it's going to be one of the best ever, to have the greatest group of players in the world, and the fact that it's going to be in North America.

And if it's not as a player, I would hope in some capacity, maybe as a coach, management, but I would really love to be involved. The 20-some years I've been involved with USA Hockey, you know, realistically I would say that the way my minutes are down, and I thought the same thing prior to the last Olympics, but because of injuries to teammates on Detroit, I was given the opportunity to play and I was fortunate enough to be named to the team.

It's a ways away still, so a lot can happen. I feel great. I don't want to hold any young kid from getting a spot on the team, but by the same token I'm not ready to give it up, either.

Q. So you'd love to be in Vancouver in any capacity?

CHELIOS: Yeah. Like I say, even if I wasn't working I would go to those Olympics and take my sons with me because I think it's going to be one of the best Olympics. Salt Lake was, as far as I'm concerned, the greatest event and hockey game that I've played in in international-type hockey. It was everything it was built up to be in Salt Lake, and I'm hoping for the same thing in Vancouver and we get the same results with U.S. and Canada facing off against each other in a gold medal game. 

Q. In terms of coaching American hockey, we started with Vairo a minute ago. Can you talk about some of the different aspects of the coaching, like you played for Ron Wilson and you played for Herb Brooks. Can you take us through the list of the coaches and tell us a little bit about the focus and whether there was consistencies there or different approaches?

CHELIOS: Well, I think (Lou) Vairo had a pretty difficult task. He was trying to make that transition, I don't know if you'd call it a European-style of play, but obviously 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 Herb Brooks obviously, he -- I don't know so much maybe because of the fact that they were still back in the U.S. playing in Lake Placid, didn't really have to make that transition that Lou Vairo had to. Yeah, I thought Lou did a great job. Our practices were high-tempo. It was fun, and the players really enjoyed that style of play.

As far as Herb Brooks is concerned, I don't think I've ever had a better coach from the standpoint of motivating the players and preparing the players for a game and just how excited he was before every game.

The only regret I have is I never played for him before Utah. It was a great experience to play for Herb Brooks.

Q. You were talking in your opening remarks about being involved with the select festivals back when you were a young player, and I know that your sons are excellent players in their own right and have had their opportunity to play in various USA Hockey camps and tournaments. I was wondering if you have the opportunity to go when they go to those camps, to go yourself and check them out, and what are some of your thoughts about how far those programs have come?

CHELIOS: Yeah, I mean, they're great. I remember going to St. Cloud last year, Brainerd. I think the best experience was St. Cloud. Eddie Olczyk took a team to Czechoslovakia I believe it was last fall, and they finished second. Obviously me and Eddie go back a long ways to the Olympics.

But like I say, without programs like that, the kids, the level of competition around the country is not the same in all states, so when you get those kids to come together in Minnesota, they've had some good select camps in Michigan, the competition level is raised so much higher, and it gives those kids an opportunity to see what they're up against.

Same with my kids; if it wasn't for the development programs, the select tournaments -- I know my son Jake is actually going to Chicago this weekend for a big select tournament. Like I said, it brings out the best in them. It's the best competition. And this Ann Arbor program, I think, if you see what it's done for the Junior National program over the years where they've had some great success winning the gold medal a few years back, I think it was with the Suter -- I think Ryan Suter was a member of that team, that program has really boosted the 18-and-unders, the 17-and-unders, the highest group of kids throughout the country to come in here and be able to play together and develop them and then to move on to college, which really is a big -- a great steppingstone to get into college.

That's an upshoot, of course, for my kids, and 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.

Q. I'm wondering if you can go back to Salt Lake City. I remember being there, as well, and I agree with you it was an amazing moment for hockey. That Canada-U.S. game, did you feel like maybe there was more pressure on you guys because you were on home ice and it also wasn't that far removed from 9/11, but by the same token maybe that's the same kind of pressure that might be difficult for Canada and Vancouver?

CHELIOS: You know what, I don't think we felt the pressure as much as we felt the support, and I think we used that crowd and the atmosphere to our advantage. I don't think it affected us one bit right until the last game. I think that day we got beat by the better team, and like I said, there was no disappointment. It could have went either way.

Canada just -- I look at Joe Sakic's performance in that game. Sometimes it takes an individual to step up his game, and the better team won that day. Like I said, if you ask anybody, that was some of the greatest hockey that I've seen or at least that I've been a part of in my career. As far as the pressure, I don't believe so. I think it worked to our advantage the whole tournament.

Q. And as a follow-up, what do you think of your country's chances in 2010? A lot of the young American NHLers are making their way right now, kind of a new generation. What are your thoughts on those kids?

CHELIOS: Well, our chapter is as good as anyone's, and I think obviously because Canada is defending champion and they're on home ice, they're going to be the team to beat, and they'll be the toughest team to beat. But otherwise I think we match-up against anybody else in that tournament. We're just as good. It just remains to be seen who the hot team is at the right time.

FISCHER: Thanks very much, and Chris, thanks for the time.

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