Thinking About the Red Wings’ Steve Chiasson

I was cleaning out an unkempt corner of the basement, performing triage on 20 years’ worth of crap—what to keep, what to toss, what to maybe—when I came across an old hockey magazine from the fall of 1993. On the cover were Steve Chiasson and his two-year-old son, Mike. The headline was “Home Team.” I had to smile.

I always liked that cover. Michelle Andonian, one of Detroit’s finest photographers, shot it the day she and I went to Chiasson’s house to do a feature on the Red Wings defenseman and his young family. At 26, Chiasson was at the top of his game. He was a key man on the power play, coming off a season where he’d scored a career-best 62 points. He was the first Detroit defenseman in a decade to be named to the All-Star team. Teammates liked him. He was gritty, quick to jump to their assistance. He wore the “A” on his jersey, signifying alternate captain.

He was a regular joe from Peterborough, Ontario, who had married Sue, a warm, outgoing hometown girl with brains and looks. Sue had a master’s degree, and had spent some time as a social worker before assuming her role as a hockey wife, with all that entailed. “It’s not this big, glamorous lifestyle that people think,” she protested. “It’s not like that. Not at all.”

On this day Steve stood in his stocking feet in the kitchen, dipping a knife into the mayo jar while assembling post-practice tuna fish sandwiches. Scotty Bowman had just become the Wings’ new coach, and trade rumors were rampant. Steve was philosophical. “Actually, trades are harder on a player’s family,” he said. “I walk into a locker room the next day and there’ll be 25 guys to talk with. My job basically hasn’t changed, just the uniform. But your wife has to stay behind, worry about selling the house, arranging the move, maybe pulling the kids out of school, and hundreds of other details.”

Like many competitive types, Chiasson could be a hard loser, especially at playoff time. “The end of the season is a crazy time of year,” Sue said. “And each wife will tell you something different. We just kind of give them a little bit of space—a lot of space sometimes.” She gave a little laugh. “So they get two or three days to deal with it. Then Steve comes home and says, ‘OK, that’s it, let’s get on with what we’re going to do for the summer.’ And life goes on.”

Steve watched Mike swing a plastic stick in the living room. “Play hockey. That’s all my lad wants to do,” he said, smiling. Michelle’s cover photograph was a close-up of father and son, heads leaning into each other, with Mike displaying Steve’s characteristic mannerism: slightly sticking out the tip of his tongue while concentrating.

Chiasson didn’t fit into Scotty Bowman’s plans. After the season he was traded to Calgary, a couple thousand miles away, for goalie Mike Vernon. From Calgary he later went to Hartford—again cross-country, only this time even farther. A year later, the moving van took the Chiassons—now expanded to include toddlers Stephanie and Ryan—from Connecticut to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Steve played for the Hurricanes.

On May 3, 1999, the ‘Canes were eliminated from the playoffs in Boston. The team flew back to Raleigh. Steve, physically drained and dejected by the early exit, spent the next several hours unwinding with a few other veteran players and their wives at teammate Gary Roberts’ house. Around 4 in the morning, he ignored all pleas to take a cab and instead climbed into his pickup. Sue and the kids were waiting at home.

It wasn’t the first time he had driven drunk, but it was the last. He went into a sharp curve at 75 miles an hour. The pickup flew off the road. Steve, who wasn’t wearing a seat belt, shot out of the rolling truck. A toxicology report showed his blood alcohol level was three and half times the legal limit. He had just turned 32.

His death, of course, was big news in Detroit. I remember at the time being amazed that anyone would chance throwing away what he had—that wonderful family, his career, his future–in such a cavalier fashion. More than amazed, I was strangely pissed—and looking at that cover again after so many years, I guess I still was. The same thought ran through my mind: What a waste. But this blog isn’t the place to post public service announcements or stage a virtual Billy Sunday tent revival. People can figure out the moral to the story on their own.

I read somewhere that Sue had remarried, moved to Nevada, and Mike—now 20 years old—had committed to playing for the University of Michigan this fall. A blueliner, of course, just like his father. Does his tongue still jut out?

I put the magazine in the “keep” pile and resumed my housecleaning. Life goes on, long after another’s ends so abruptly and needlessly.