Scotty Bowman figured he’d have Chris Chelios with the Detroit Red Wings for a brief time.
Acquired less than two years after Vladimir Konstantinov’s horrific and career-ending accident, Chelios filled a void at defenseman and would give the Wings’ young blue liners a little more time to develop.
A decade later…
“It’s hard to fathom,” said the Blackhawks’ senior advisor. “We were thinking he’d play a year or two until some of our younger defenseman made the NHL. He played nine years. If we’d have known.”
What surprises many is how long Chelios played, logging 26 seasons and retiring at age 48. What surprises no one is that Chelios is a first-ballot inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, which will have its ceremony tonight in Toronto. For those who played with, coached or watched the Chelios, the Chicago-born defenseman epitomized toughness, longevity and determination.
“Talk about a great story,” Blackhawks historian Bob Verdi said. “He’s cut from every team (when he was young), told he wasn’t good enough, that he was too small and he didn’t play defense in the beginning. Then he turns out to be the ultimate warrior.”
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For fellow Chicago native Eddie Olczyk, his former teammate and longtime friend’s induction is well deserved.
“It’s the pinnacle of any individual award you can get for a player. He just was able to be the best for long stretches at every level he played at, and that’s the most important thing,” Olczyk said. “It didn’t matter what the game was, the competitive nature. He was a great player for a long period of time. I couldn’t be happier for him and his family.”
It’s easy to point to Chelios’ well-documented fitness regimen as why he played so long. As Olczyk said, Chelios was “a unique freak when it came to conditioning. He could have a long shift, then come right back out and be just as good as he was before.” But it’s more than that. Chelios started his career as a more offensive defenseman and ended it as a shutdown one. And no matter his style, Chelios was always pitted against the opponents’ best.
Chelios’ ability to adapt, adjust and still thrive was evident.
“If you wanted him to play a skilled, elite and fast offensive game, he could do that. If you wanted him to play a nasty game, he’d be right in the middle of it,” Olczyk said. “But as he got older he understood his role. His ability to play any way for as long as he did separates him from everyone else.”
Being a three-time Norris Trophy winner validates that.
“He was in contention all the time, and with the defensemen that started in his era, the competition was pretty stiff,” Bowman said. “Denis Potvin was still playing, Ray Bourque, then along comes Al MacInnis, Nicklas Lidstrom and Scott Niedermayer. These are (current and future) hall-of-fame defensemen, and he was in an era with seven or eight that you could say, ‘Which one wins the Norris?’”
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Chelios’ love of the game was undeniable.
“Normal hockey players look forward to time away from the rink in the summer, whether you’re going to the lake or playing golf or whatever,” Verdi said. “I don’t think Cheli ever felt more at home than when he was on the ice.”
Verdi guesses that, despite retirement, Chelios will always find a reason to get back on the ice.
“He’s not skating now, only because he’s being indicted in to the Hall of Fame,” he said. “But he’ll probably skate somewhere Tuesday when it’s done.”