It’s rare for a player to come from Chicago to don a Detroit uniform and earn a place as one of our own. But Chris Chelios did it, and he did it all after he turned 37.
As a result, Chelios holds a unique place in the history of the Detroit Red Wings. He’s one of the few athletes to come to Detroit after establishing himself as a superstar who spent a significant time in the city and won championships. He’s become a fixture in the city even after his career, with a popular restaurant located downtown and as an important executive in owner Mike Ilitch’s front office.He’s one of the only American-born Red Wings to be elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Chelios was born on January 25, 1962, in a suburb just south of Chicago called Evergreen Park. He excelled at practically every form of athletics as a kid but took to ice hockey like a natural, encouraged by his father and mother. When he was in high school, the Chelios family moved to California, which put Chris’s hockey career in serious jeopardy. There were no hockey leagues for Chris to play in southern California so he couldn’t show off his skills to college recruiters, who basically ignored anything west of Colorado anyway. Only one school offered Chelios a hockey scholarship — United States International University, a tiny college in San Diego. But even in that remote hockey outpost, Chelios was not up to the level of play that his team faced in Division I. Before he could settle in to college hockey very long,Chelios was cut from the team and forced to go to Canada to accept an offer from a junior club. But at that point in his development, Chelios was undersized and didn’t have anything to help him stand out. As a result, his coaches preferred to give his roster spot to players from Canada. Chris shuffled back home with his tail between his legs.
At that point, having been cut in college by a nowhere school and having been rejected in Canada by Junior B teams, Chelios could have given up his dream of becoming an NHL player. But something inside of the young man wouldn’t let him do that. In the spring and summer after his 18th birthday, Chelios worked hard to remake himself. He added 40 pounds of muscle to his frame and was also helped out by a growth spurt that shot him up three inches to 5’11. He landed a spot with the Moose Jaw Canucks way up in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League and opened some eyes with his aggressive play in a short season. Amazingly, the Montreal Canadiens selected Chelios in the 1981 NHL Entry Draft late in the middle rounds. He was one step closer to the NHL but he had a lot of hurdles to clear to make it up the ladder.
But it was then that Chelios soared to the top of the crop of young players in North America. The Canadiens sent him to the University of Wisconsin-Madison where he played tough competition and distinguished himself. He earned a spot on the U.S. team in the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships in 1982, played a central role on the Badgers’ ’83 team that won the NCAA hockey title, and played for the U.S. in the 1984 Olympics at Sarajevo. Shortly after that the Canadiens called him up for a quick taste of the NHL. He was 22 years old and a top young talent, but few could have known that Chelios would go on to play in the NHL as long as anyone ever had.
While he had to work and persevere and become numb to rejection in order to get to the NHL, once Chelios got there he never looked back. He was named to the NHL All-Rookie team in 1985, earned a trip to the All-Star Game in his first season, and led all defensemen with 64 points. In 1988-89 he won the James Norris Trophy for the best defenseman in the league, the first of three times he would cop the honor. The high point in Montreal came in the 1985-86 season when the young Chelios was part of a Stanley Cup champion.
After six full seasons with the Habs, Chelios was traded by Montreal to the Blackhawks for Denis Savard, an All-Star center. The deal turned out to be a miserable failure for the Canadiens. Savard declined rapidly and aged quickly as he was never a truly great player in his 30s, while Chelios continued a dominant stretch as one of the finest defensemen in the NHL. In Second City, Chelios quickly helped the Blackhawks rise to the top of the league. In 1992 they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals, and Chelios won two more Norris Trophies in Chicago. He eventually was named captain of the Blackhawks. But with the Hawks looking to the future they dealt Chelios to the Red Wings on march 23, 1999 for two first round draft picks and Anders Eriksson, a much younger defenseman. Chelios was 37 years old and was in his sixteenth NHl campaign, but as the Wings and their fans were to find out, he had a lot of hockey left in his body.
When Chelios first pulled a Red Wings’ sweater over his head he had played 1,066 regular season games and 163 in the playoffs. The Wings had won the previous two Stanley Cup titles and were keen to make it a threepeat. Chelios was added punch late in the season for another Cup run. But that season it didn’t work out according to plan — the Wings were bounced from the playoffs in the second round by the Avalanche. Similar disappointments occurred in the playoffs in the next two seasons, but in 2001-02, everything came together for the Red Wings and Chelios. The veteran (he turned 40 during the season) had one of his best seasons in hockey that year, posting a +40 and scoring 39 points in 79 games. He had 14 points and a +15 in the playoffs and when Detroit eliminated the Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Finals in six games, Chelios was one of the men who got to raise the cup.
After that it seemed like Chelios might play forever. Every few years his contract would expire and speculation would surface that maybe he would hang up his worn skates. But he kept inking new deals with Ilitch and even after he and everyone else in the sport missed an entire year because of a strike, Chelios came back for more. He loved the game and he loved being a part of a team.
“I’m addicted to being a teammate,” Chelios once told the Philadelphia daily News. “I love going out on the ice shoulder-to-shoulder with the guys. I like training camp and the locker room and everything about being with the guys.”
And Chelios was appreciated by his teammates. To a man, his Red Wing brothers praised Chelios for his hard work, leadership, and commitment to excellence.
“No one works harder than him,” captain Steve Yzerman said.
Well past his 40th birthday as he forged ahead in his career with the Wings, Chelios wasn’t just hanging on. He was the captain of the U.S. Hockey team in the 2006 Olympics, he was frequently among league leaders in +/- and he kept leading the Detroit defensive unit as they added to their string of playoff appearances. In 2008 at the age of 45 years and 348 days, Chelios became the second-oldest man to ever play in the National Hockey League, trailing only Gordie Howe, who played until after his 52nd birthday. Also that year, Chelios set a record by playing in his 248th playoff game. The Wings won the title that spring and Chelios became the oldest player to hoist the Cup. It was his third time as an NHL champion.
After playing his last game with Detroit in 2009 at the age of 47, Chelios was not on the roster the next season, since the Wings were looking to get younger. But Chris wasn’t done playing and he came back for seven games with the Atlanta Thrashers in the 2009-10 season at the age of 48. That summer he finally announced his retirement, doing so as a Red Wing at The Joe. It was also announced that Chelios would accept a position as special adviser to Ilitch and the front office.
Chris Chelios came to the Red Wings at the age of 37 with more than 1,200 NHL games on his legs. But he ended up playing longer for Detroit than he did anywhere else — 10 seasons, 578 regular season games, and 103 playoff games. Defying age and science, Chelios just got tougher and more efficient, shift after shift after shift he schooled younger players who dared to come into his area of the ice. He was tough but also had enough finesse with his passes to earn the nickname “Soft Hands.” In 2013 he was deservedly inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. He rates as one of the best defensemen ever to play the game and as one of the Red Wings all-time greats.