For all that Chris Chelios accomplished on the ice in his 26-year NHL career – three Stanley Cup championships, three James Norris Memorial Trophies, Olympic silver medal in 2002, seminal World Cup of Hockey triumph in 1996 – the hardest part to get past is that extraordinary longevity.
Chelios finished fifth on the NHL all-time games-played list – and that doesn’t count the detour to the UHL during the 2004-05 lockout, or the time he spent with his hometown Chicago Wolves (AHL) as a 48-year-old just because he wanted to play some more and wasn’t ready to pack it in.
The longevity is amazing – as is the commitment and the conditioning and all the work it took for an American kid who lived, variously in Chicago, Australia and Southern California during his formative years, to make that long and winding journey to the NHL.
But Darryl Sutter, who coached Chelios when he was in the prime of his career with the Chicago Blackhawks, remembers something else: How good Chelios really was – the greatest American-born player of all time – he says; how Chelios could play all night, if he had to, and in the playoffs, when match-ups become all-consuming for coaches, he often did.
Sutter had it set up with Chelios this way: The latter would come back to the bench for a quick breather and when he was ready to go again, he’d give Sutter a wink, the signal to send him back out. If Chelios needed a few more seconds to recover, he wouldn’t make eye contact.
They had lots of great moments together, but Sutter remembers one game in particular, when Eric Lindros first arrived in the NHL with the Philadelphia Flyers in 1992, and was being promoted as the biggest thing since Wayne Gretzky. The Americans had had a glimpse of Lindros in the [1991 Canada] Cup and everybody wanted to test themselves against this wrecking ball of a kid.
“I remember when Eric Lindros was still a young guy,” Sutter said. “We played him for the first time in Chicago Stadium and Chelios was driven – driven – to make sure Lindros was not the centre of attention that night, or the guy who made a difference in the game.
“That’s how Chelly was. He always wanted to take charge. I don’t know if he ever appreciated himself how good he was, but he was such a great competitor that he wanted to be better than whoever he was out playing against. Not just as good. Better.
“He was such a young guy when he came to Chicago, basically a rebel, with a desire to be a great player. Then, he became the whole package in terms of his training. And he cared about everybody. That’s his thing. He never forgets where he came from or what he’s about – family, blue collar. It doesn’t matter. He could always come back to that – always and instantly,” Sutter said. “Those were his roots. Everything was dead honest all the time.
“Whether everybody liked it or not, that’s okay. But that’s how he is.”
On Monday, Chelios will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, alongside Brendan Shanahan, Scott Niedermayer, Geraldine Heaney and the late Fred Shero. Typically self-effacing, Chelios said the word “comical” came to mind when he was told he was heading to the Hall of Fame.
“You don’t play hockey when you’re a kid growing up in Chicago in an Irish neighbourhood,” Chelios said Friday, after he and his fellow inductees were presented with their Hall of Fame rings.
“I was just fortunate enough that my family had enough money at the time to put me on a team. Probably the biggest issue growing up was none of the kids could afford it, or their families. Then, when I was 16, I was broke, I was lucky enough that somebody sponsored me to play high-school hockey. Timing’s everything. I was just in the right place at the right time for most of it.