'Tough as nails' Chelios to be honored at UC

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'Tough as nails' Chelios to be honored at UC

Friday, Dec. 17, 2010
12:54 p.m.

By Tracey Myers
CSNChicago.com

Pat Foley was recently reminiscing about a golf outing he had with Chris Chelios several years ago.

The former Chicago Blackhawks defenseman, who will be honored with a Heritage Night at the United Center tonight, was enjoying the day with Foley and others when he abruptly left.

Chelios was headed to the rink. To skate. In the middle of his offseason.

He never went three days in a row without skating, Foley said. He loved being on the ice. Thats where he preferred to be. Whatever else was going on, nothing would get in the way of being on the ice. I never met anyone who loved the game that much.

After hearing that, it all makes sense. How Chelios compiled a 26-season career in the NHL. How he could log gaudy minutes per game. And how difficult it was for him to walk away from hockey, until he finally did this past August at age 48.

When Chelios is honored tonight, it will be mainly for his nine seasons with the Blackhawks where he was captain for four seasons and a two-time Norris Trophy winner.

He recorded career-high 58 assists in two of his seasons with the Blackhawks, and his 21 points during the 1991-92 playoffs is still a franchise best for a defenseman.

Yes, fans werent happy when he was traded to the much-hated Red Wings. And if Chelios doesnt get overwhelming applause at the United Center tonight, thats OK.

Ive been booed before. I understand the Detroit-Chicago thing. I mentioned that there are a lot of things that happen behind closed doors, and I choose not to share that with the public. But I left on great terms for the Wirtz family, he said. I had nine great years playing in my hometown in front of my friends and kids I grew up with. The fact I made it to the NHL and got a chance to play in my hometown, I know how proud they are of me.

For Chelios, it wouldve been great to get a Cup during his time in Chicago. But when the Blackhawks won it last season, he was soaking it up.

It was a long time coming and they probably wont believe me when I say this, but I was cheering for the Hawks right up to the end (last season), Chelios said Friday morning. I went to the parade and I saw the effect it had. I got to live it as a fan, which is something I hadnt gotten to do (when I grew up here).

Chelios career numbers are staggering. He played in more than 1,900 regular-season and playoff games, racking up 216 goals and 876 assists. And he was still out there competing through his late 40s.

His goal was to play to 50, said Denis Savard, who was a Chelios opponent and teammate. He loved to be on the ice. He was the first guy on and the last guy off. The passion he had; he was a great competitor. And thats what he was until the last second.

Chelios was traded from Montreal to Chicago in exchange for Savard in 1990. But when the Blackhawks faced Montreal the first season after that trade, Chelios brought his tenacious game to Savard.

I scored in one of the first games we played the Hawks, Savard remembered. The next thing I know he knocked my helmet off with an elbow. I thought, Uh oh, hes not happy. He was tough to play against. He was well respected but he was mean to play against. If you went to battle with him, you didnt win very often.

Former Blackhawk Troy Murray, who first faced Chelios when the two were in college Murray at North Dakota, Chelios at Wisconsin said Chelios was, as nasty as anybody that played the game.

If he had to bite you in the kneecap to win a fight, he would, said Murray. There was no quit in him. He has about as much passion for the game as Ive seen in anyone. Hes still very passionate about keeping the game where it needs to be, with the type of style that he believes is the right one in the NHL.

Current Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews said Chelios never lost that style.

He definitely got a free hand out there once in a while to slow you down, Toews said. Some veterans can get away with a little bit. He was a smart player. Thats why he was playing so late. I guess I should be thankful I didnt catch him in his prime.

Thats when the Blackhawks had Chelios he was 28 when he was traded to Chicago. Chelios recorded 73-point seasons in 1992-93 and 1995-96. His play and leadership qualities earned him the captaincy in 1995, and former teammate Steve Konroyd remembered Chelios as a quiet leader.

"He was colorful and he eventually became captain when I was here. But he didnt say much in the room, Konroyd said. He really led by example on the ice. He let his actions speak for themselves.

The Blackhawks lost several superstars to trades in the late 1990s, and Chelios was one of the last to go when he was sent to Detroit in 1999. Chelios was 37 when he joined the Red Wings, and surrounded by a formidable team he played 10 more seasons with them.

Red Wings forward Mike Modano already had plenty of respect for Chelios, with whom he played on several Olympic, Canada and World Cup squads. But he gained an even bigger appreciation for Chelios later in his career. Last summer the 40-year-old Modano wrestled with retiring after 19 seasons with the North StarsDallas Stars or playing at least one more season.

He relates to my situation talking about the transition where you feel youre not at peak of your game, yet youre holding on and trying to squeeze every last drip out of yourself, Modano said. He understands that. He was certainly a catalyst for bringing me here.

Tonight will probably be a memorable one for Chelios. Hell be surrounded by his family as well as friends and former teammates. He will always be known as the tough as nails defenseman who played bigger than his 6-foot frame. So the homecoming wont be emotional. Right?

I hope not, he said with a laugh. You never know. The only time I get emotional is when I talk about my family, and theyll be up there with me. Well see what happens. Im not bulletproof.

On the ice, it always seemed he was.

Tracey Myers is CSNChicago.com's Blackhawks Insider. Follow Tracey on Twitter @TramyersCSN for up-to-the-minute Hawks information.

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