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.
"But when you mention all these guys, there's no way I think I fit in with this group of players. I grew up watching them, and I'm still a fan. You think Wayne Gretzky and then you say my name and I'm thinking, 'You're kidding me.'
"It's really an unbelievable feeling. I never thought I'd make the NHL, so this is crazy."
Unlike Shanahan and Niedermayer, who were high-end, on-the-radar prospects from the time they were teenagers – and went second- and third-overall, respectively, in the 1987 and 1991 NHL drafts – Chelios's career was almost over before it started.
His parents were in the restaurant business and moved frequently. He played whenever he could, but in San Diego, the summer he was 16, he was trying to find a place to play – and not succeeding.
He couldn't hook up with Tier 2 teams in Quebec or Ontario and was almost out of options until a friend recommended he try out for the SJHL team in Moose Jaw.
The small Saskatchewan city was about as far away from the beaches of San Diego as you can imagine, but eventually, the coach, Larry Billows, bought him a plane ticket north because the team was struggling so badly.
Walking into the rink that first day, Chelios said, he remembers "looking at the coach's face when he saw me and how small I was and it was like he was thinking, 'What am I doing, paying for this guy to come up here?' I sat for a week, watching and practising with the team and then I got my chance and it couldn't have gone any better.
"I scored on my first shift. Then, he asked me if I was tough, so I go fight and win my fight. I can remember one of the other parents trying to convince him to trade me before it's too late and he said, 'No way.' The team wasn't doing well – and the rest is history."
In Moose Jaw, Chelios was converted from a forward to a defenceman and, in his third season, he scored 87 points in 54 games, prompting Montreal to select him with their fifth choice, 40th overall, in the 1981 NHL draft.
Of Montreal's first four picks that year – Mark Hunter, Gilbert Delorme, Jan Ingman and Lars Eriksson – two had respectable NHL careers and the other two never even got to the league.
Chelios played 1,651 regular-season games.
From Moose Jaw, Chelios moved on to the University of Wisconsin, Madison, played on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and was in a Canadiens uniform by NHL playoff time. He played 15 playoff games that year, nine more the next, and in the 1985-86 season, played 20 as the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup.
Chelios was traded to his hometown team, the Blackhawks, for Denis Savard in June of 1990, and won his second and third Norris Trophies playing for Chicago. In the spring of 1999, after the Blackhawks had fallen on hard times, he was traded to their arch-rivals, the Detroit Red Wings. He was 37.
The perception was, the end was near; Chelios was a short-term solution, defensive depth on a pretty good team. Instead, he played another decade for Detroit and won Stanley Cups with the Wings in 2002 and 2008.
His 266 career playoff games played is an NHL record – more than Gretzky, more than Mark Messier.
Red Wings forward Daniel Cleary crossed paths with Chelios early on – he was Chicago's first pick in the 1997 draft – and then again later on, with the Red Wings.
"When I was a kid, starting out in Chicago, I remember he used to make me race him every day in practice, board to board – 'wallies' we called them," Cleary said. "Finally, one time I beat him and he broke his stick over the boards. That was Chelly. He's hard core in everything he does – training, playing, very opinionated, stubborn, but a great teammate, with a great hockey mind. They don't make them like him any more, let me tell you."
No, they don't.
In an era when the personalities are frequently leeched out of player early in their careers, Chelios was his own true, authentic self from the beginning to the end.
"The best American defenceman of all time for sure," Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock said. "Great instincts. Kind of like [Erik] Karlsson in Ottawa, they play the game going forward.
"An elite penalty killer, ultra-competitive, he was in on the Norris Trophy one year with Nick [Lidstrom] when he was 40 some years old. I mean, he's an absolute star. He loved the game and he loved being around the guys and he always had stuff going on. He'd be on the Internet between periods, watching his kids play. He's just a busy guy.
"I mean, he played in the American Hockey League at the end, that's how much he liked hockey."
And he hasn't completely lost the urge to play again.
The man who played the most regular-season NHL games in history, Gordie Howe, eventually came back so he could play with his sons, Mark and Marty – and Chelios isn't ruling out the same.
His sons, Jake and Dean, are seniors at Michigan State University and Chelios said: "If for some reason, they don't make it, I'm staying in shape and I wouldn't hesitate to go to Europe – pick a good country and take my whole family over and go play with them there. As far as the NHL or the AHL, no way. But Switzerland? Who knows? We've done crazier things in our family."
According to Sutter, while there are "a lot of great American players now, [Chelios] was close to the great Canadian players of his time in terms of his attitude, in how he played the game, in how he knew the game and in terms of the team structure. He wanted to manage the locker room and he was great at it.
"With Chris, even when he wasn't going to play any more, when Detroit was telling him he was going to be a sixth or a seventh guy, he was still driven to play. … That's how he was. When those young guys see him now, when he goes down to [Detroit's AHL affiliate in] Grand Rapids [in his role as the Red Wings adviser to hockey operations], I'll bet they're saying: 'That's Chris Chelios. That's Superman.' "
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