– They had two of the top offensively productive defensemen in the league with Nicklas Lidstrom
and Larry Murphy combining for 109 points and a cumulative plus-35 rating in the 1998-99 season. But something was still missing after the tragic limousine crash that took the career of Vladimir Kontstantinov.
“We won the Cup in ’97 and then we lost Konstantinov in the car crash,” Red Wings general manager Ken Holland recently recalled. “We signed Uwe Krupp to replace Konstantinov in a way, and it didn’t work out.”
Krupp, a big 6-foot-6 German defenseman, never panned out and only played a handful of games in a Wings’ uniform before a back injury eventually ended his career.
It was off to Plan B for the Wings.
“I asked (Blackhawks GM) Bob Murray in late November (1998) if they would consider trading Chris Chelios,” Holland said. “Chicago at the time was having a tough go to its season, and they said ‘no’. ”
But before he hung up, Holland made sure to let Murray know if he should ever change his mind to remember that Detroit would be interested to swing a deal for the Chicago native, who was a former Montreal draft pick that once helped the Canadians win the Stanley Cup in 1986.
And sure enough, the Blackhawks general manager remembered.
“Right before the trade deadline, the day before about 4 o’clock, Bob Murray called and said ‘some things have changed and if you’re interested in Chris Chelios we’re going to move him,’ ” Holland said. “I obviously talked to our people and Scotty Bowman was more than excited to add him to the team.
“We thought that Cheli had a lot of hockey left in him and ultimately put the package together that made Cheli a Red Wing,” said Holland, who immediately signed Chelios to a two-year extension, meaning he would be a Red Wing through the 2001-02 season.
To get Chelios away from the Blackawks the Wings had to send them defenseman Anders Eriksson, who was a former first-rounder, and a pair of future first-round draft picks – defenseman Steve McCarthy (1999) and goalie Adam Munro (2001) – whose NHL careers consisted of 302 and 17 games, respectively.
In hindsight, Chelios’ NHL career lasted five-times that, becoming the NHL’s all-time leader in games played by a defenseman (1,651) and helped the Wings bring two more Stanley Cup championships to Hockeytown.
Tonight, Chelios will be back in his hometown where he will be inducted into the USA Hockey Hall of Fame along side former players Gary Suter and Keith Tkachuk, longtime broadcaster Mike Emrick, and Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider.
Chelios played a little more than nine seasons in a Red Wings’ uniform, tallying 21 goals and 131 assists, and a remarkable plus-158 rating in 578 games.
“We knew we had him for that playoff run and three additional years,” Holland said. “Realistically, we thought that would be the time-frame for his career. I thought if we had him for four playoffs that would take him to 40-years of age, and that would be more than enough. But we never thought he would be here for 10 years.”
In all, Chelios played 27 NHL seasons, won the Norris Trophy three times and finished second twice, including 2002 when he lead the league with a plus-40 rating and was runner-up to Lidstrom.
“Cheli is a guy that when he’s on your team you and your fans love him, and when he’s on the other team you don’t like him,” Holland said. “And obviously once we got him on our team we loved him. He’s a warrior, he’s a competitor, he’s a team player, he’s a physical fitness nut and he’s a work horse, and he’s mentally strong, really strong. And when he got here, he was an old pro. He knew how to conserve energy. He was running around and didn’t try to go end-to-end. He conserved energy, and a real good player.”
Besides the NHL, Chelios was a staple at the international level, too, representing the United States 10 times, including four Winter Olympic Games. He was captain of three of those squads – 1998, 2002 and 2006. He also helped the U.S. defeat Canada in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
These days, Chelios, who is an advisor to the Wings’ hockey operations staff, gets his hockey fix in Grand Rapids, where he regularly works with Wings’ prospects. He also represented Team USA as an assistant coach at the Deutschland Cup last month.
In January, Chelios will turn 50-years-old, yet rumors persisted last week at Joe Louis Arena that he travels with an equipment bag in his car and from time to time stops by community rinks to play in pick-up games.
“He has incredible passion, he loves hockey,” Holland said. “You don’t play in the National Hockey League until you’re 48-years of age unless you have some qualities in you that most people don’t have. The league is too good, the league is too fast, the league’s too hard, too young, and too competitive.
“He’s got an incredible passion for the game, and against his peers, it’s another level of passion, and that’s why any stories that I might hear about Chris Chelios wouldn’t surprise me.”Follow Bill Roose on Twitter | @RooseBill