Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Nearly Ten Years After Trade, Chelios Still In The League -- And Still A Red Wing

At the trading deadline in 1999, Red Wings GM Ken Holland made quite a splash, as he tried to bring a third straight Stanley Cup to Detroit. He brought in Wendel Clark, a former Red Wings nemesis, from Tampa Bay. He traded for defenseman Ulf Samuelsson. He snagged goalie Bill Ranford. And he dealt for a 37-year-old defenseman that many feared was way too past his prime to be of any use in the long term. How much longer would Chris Chelios even be IN the NHL, let alone be effective?

Well, that was over nine years ago, and Chelios, who just signed another one-year deal to stay with the Red Wings past his 47th birthday in January, will retire having played more seasons with the Red Wings than with the Chicago Blackhawks or Montreal Canadiens -- the teams with which he had been so closely associated. It's like Carlton Fisk, the venerable catcher, and the sudden realization that he was a Chicago White Sock longer than he was a Boston Red Sock.

All the players Holland acquired on that trade deadline day in '99 were long in the tooth. And the strategy failed; the Red Wings lost in the second round to Colorado. And since Chelios was so entrenched in the Chicago scene, being a native son, a restaurant owner in the Windy City, and an almost nine-year Blackhawk (including several years as team captain), his acquisition looked like a stopgap measure. Few figured Cheli would warm up to playing for the arch rival Red Wings, or cozy up to the city of Detroit.

Chelios himself wondered that. On more than one occasion, early in his Red Wings career, Chelios admitted to there being quite an adjustment in both his personal and his hockey lives. There was the "fish out of water" feeling for a couple years. But then he opened up a couple restaurants in town, the team won two more Stanley Cups, and there's that new distinction about being a Red Wing longer than anything. Oh, he still admits to Chicago being "home", in his heart (who can blame him there?), but Detroit runs a very close second.

Still, all this brings to light just how amazing Gordie Howe's longevity was, as if we needed another reason to heap praise on Mr. Hockey.

Howe retired from the NHL -- for good -- at the end of the 1979-80 season. He was 52. He played in all 80 games for the Hartford Whalers that season, and chipped in 15 goals. And yet Chelios, for all his worth, will still be five years behind Howe in terms of being the oldest player to lace up an NHL skate. And, in fairness to Howe, who was a regular player until the day of his retirement, Chelios will return to the Red Wings in '08-'09 as a part-timer. He may only play in about half of the team's games, if that.

"He won't play 25 minutes a game anymore," Holland told the media yesterday about Chelios's participation with the Red Wings this season. "But can he play 15? Absolutely."

Wendel Clark, Ulf Samuelsson, and Bill Ranford are all long ago retired. You'd expect that, of course, from deadline day acquisitions some nine years ago. They were old, after all, when the Red Wings traded for them. But Chelios was old, too. He was 37. Yet he will be on the Wings' roster on the 10th anniversary of the trade. Maybe that's not Gordie Howe great, but that's still pretty damn unbelievable.

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