He was the accidental Red Wing. He never dreamed of playing in Detroit, never fantasized about pulling the blood red sweater with the winged wheel over his chest. Far from it, as a matter of fact.
Chris Chelios was as Chicago as the Cubs, Second City and dirty politics. His was a Greek family couched in Evergreen Park, Illinois, where the Blackhawks ruled the roost when it came to hockey teams you rooted for.
When Chelios entered the world, the NHL had six teams and if you weren’t born in Canada, it was almost a death knell for your chances of playing in the league.
Americans played hockey, but they just didn’t play it in the NHL, which at the time only had about 120 jobs available, and it seemed like 115 of them went to Canucks. The European invasion was still a decade off in 1962, when Chelios was born.
It didn’t help Chelios when his family moved to Southern California in 1977. If you were an American and harbored dreams of being an NHLer, moving to the beaches of San Diego wasn’t exactly the way to make those dreams come true.
There wasn’t any high school hockey, number one. Chelios played youth hockey in Illinois, but when he got to San Diego as a 16-year-old he was a boy without a team. In San Diego, they used sticks to pick up sushi, not to swat at vulcanized rubber pucks.
Because he didn’t play hockey at the high school level, no colleges recruited Chris Chelios. At that point, playing in the NHL was the mother of all pipe dreams.
Strangely, there was actually an NCAA Division I hockey program that was San Diego-based. In fact, it was the only such program west of the Rockies. It was called U.S. International University, and it floated Chelios a scholarship offer.
“Sure, kid. Show up to campus and let’s see what you got,” might have been the terms of the scholarship.
It didn’t work out so well for Chelly at U.S. International. He arrived on campus in 1979 and immediately he knew he was outclassed. The other players were bigger, stronger, and many were steeped in junior hockey experience. Not surprisingly, Chelios was cut from the team. The mother of all pipe dreams looked to be going poof.
When in Rome, do as the Romans do, so Chelios decided to try Canada, where just about every boy is born with a black eye and sharp elbows.
He tried out for a couple of Junior B teams in Canada and was cut both times. Chelios was Rocky Balboa, but going in the wrong direction.
Chelios returned to California—he had to borrow money from strangers to get back home—and it looked like hockey wasn’t going to be his vocation.
Then a fascinating thing happened to him, physically. It was like something out of a Charles Atlas magazine ad.
Chelly grew a few inches and put on about 40 pounds, most of it muscle. No one was going to kick snow in his face any longer.
From that point on, Chelios’ hockey story made an about face. He made the Moose Jaw Canucks—that could only be a hockey team—of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, and he terrorized the league.
In his final season at Moose Jaw, Chelios had 87 points and 175 penalty minutes in just 54 games. It was enough to be drafted by the Montreal Canadiens, no less, in 1981.
From bumming a ride to California to being drafted by an Original Six team, in just two years, Chelios was hockey’s ugly duckling that turned swan.
After being drafted by Montreal, Chelios went to college, that level of hockey that at one time didn’t recruit him, and played a couple years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
While in college, Chelios played in the World Junior Ice Hockey Championship and in 1983, he was part of the Badgers’ NCAA championship team.
By this time, Americans had been infiltrating the NHL in greater numbers. Europeans were dotting league rosters at a growing rate as well. You no longer had to be Canadian to play in the NHL. Your birth certificate was made moot.
Chelios played for Team USA in the 1984 Olympics, and then made his debut for Les Canadiens, playing in 12 games. Two years later, he was hoisting the Stanley Cup for the 1986 Montreal team that beat the Calgary Flames.
Not bad for a guy who, just seven years prior, was being shoved around like a runt by other teens.
Chelios’ hockey story came full circle in the summer of 1990, when the Canadiens traded him to Chicago for Denis Savard, even up. Chelly was a defenseman, Savard was a center—a magician with the puck who was adored in the Windy City. The trade wasn’t exactly received with bells and whistles in Chicago, despite Chelios being a native son of sorts.
Chelios wore number 24 in Montreal, but that wasn’t going to happen with the Blackhawks. In Chicago, fellow defenseman Doug Wilson wore that number, and Wilson was almost as revered by the Blackhawk faithful as Savard was. So Chelly pulled on number seven.
In Chicago, Chelios gave the Blackhawks nearly nine full seasons, sticking his big, fat Greek nose in other people’s business to the tune of about 200 penalty minutes per season. He was especially despised in Detroit, whose rivalry with the Blackhawks had been reinvigorated as the Red Wings did their own ugly duckling to swan move and began dominating hockey in the 1990s.
But as the Red Wings rose, the Blackhawks began to fall. After facing the Red Wings in the 1995 Conference Finals, the Blackhawks soon turned slapstick more than slap shot. It got so bad that late in the 1998-99 season, Chicago hockey management started dumping salaries—including that of hometown kid-made-good, Chris Chelios.
I’ll never forget where I was when I heard the news that the Red Wings had acquired Chelios in March, 1999 at the trading deadline. I was in my car, and nearly ran it into a ditch.
Chris Chelios, a Red Wing?
It was Ted Williams to the Yankees. Larry Bird to the Lakers. A Hatfield to the McCoys.
Chelios was 37 when the trade was made, and it looked like so many the Red Wings were famous for making—a wily veteran on his last legs, for a prospect that would never find serious ice time in Detroit anyhow.
Chelios was traded for a defenseman named Anders Eriksson, who was 24 at the time and who would play in the NHL for another 11 years, but whose career reads more like a travelogue. Eriksson played for six more teams after being traded to Chicago, never carving out much of a niche anywhere he went.
But a funny thing happened with this Chelios-for-Eriksson deal. Despite being 13 years Eriksson’s senior, Chelly nearly played in the NHL for as long as Eriksson would last.
Chelios became a Red Wing, and eventually the Winged Wheel was tattooed emotionally on his heart. Detroit slowly replaced Chicago as Chelios’ home. He opened restaurants in metro Detroit, got involved in charity work and won two more Stanley Cups along the way (2002 and 2008). He played in Detroit until he was 46 years old, beating Gordie Howe in that category by three years in the age department.
Last week, Chelios—along with fellow Red Wing Brendan Shanahan—was voted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Hockey’s HOF isn’t like baseball’s. The inducted player doesn’t have to choose a sweater, like baseball folks have to choose which hat they’re going to wear on their plaques. Remember the controversy when Sparky Anderson chose to be depicted wearing a Cincinnati Reds lid?
But if hockey did have that requirement, I have little doubt that Chelly would choose to go into the Hall as a Red Wing. He is still employed by the Red Wings, as GM Kenny Holland’s Executive Advisor.
“I always say I’m from Chicago, proud of that fact, but Detroit has been my home now for the last 13 years. I love it,” Chelios told the Free Press last week.
In this case, Chicago truly is the Second City.