Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Chelios A Red Wing Longer Than Anything Else --- Which No One Expected

Chris Chelios didn't have much use for the NHL's regular season. He wasn't much different from many hockey fans in that regard -- both casual and intense.

For it's the post-season that stirs the hockey fan's blood -- and the hockey player's, too.

"This is the time of year I like the most. I live for this time."

The words were Chelios's, and he spoke them to the interloper sitting beside his personal space in the Red Wings' locker room.

The interloper was me.

The scene was just before the start of the 2007 playoffs. Chelios, then 45, and his teammates had just come off the ice after one of the last practices before the second season was to begin.

A bunch of us media types trudged into the dressing room after them, recorders and microphones and notepads in hand. Coat-tailers, all of us, in search of some memorable nugget to write about or talk about before the playoffs got rolling.

Chelios was peeling off his gear when I invaded.

My query was, "Do you still get excited about the playoffs, even after over 20 years as a player?"

Or something like that.

"I love hockey, and I love playing the games," I recall Chelios telling me. "But this, this is what I live for."

"This", of course, was the playoffs.

Goalie Dom Hasek was across the way, holding court with some more coat-tailers.

"That guy," Chelios said, nodding toward Hasek, "is the best in the business. I feel totally confident going to battle with Dom in net."

The Red Wings, in 2007, were trying to rebound from a stunning first-round loss to the Edmonton Oilers in 2006. The loss ended goalie Manny Legace's tenure in Detroit. Manny's collar tightened badly in the series, and with the talent the Red Wings had, his performance was unacceptable.

Enter Hasek, on his third tour of duty with the Wings.

Chelios couldn't wait to get started.

He played a decent amount in those 2007 playoffs, which ended for Detroit in the conference finals against Anaheim. And he played fairly well.

Chelios, 47, was officially informed yesterday by GM Ken Holland what had been suspected for quite some time -- that Chelly will not be back with the Red Wings next season.

Chelios is the Carlton Fisk of hockey.

For years, you thought of Fisk as a Boston Red Sox player -- even after he joined the Chicago White Sox. Then before you know it, he's been with the White Sox longer than he was in Boston.

Chelios was acquired by the Red Wings from Chicago, believe it or not, ten years ago -- at the 1999 trade deadline. He was considered old back then. No one thought that it was much more than the Red Wings acquiring another aging veteran, a la Larry Murphy in 1997. The idea of Chelios spending a decade in Detroit would have been folly.

He has played more years as a Red Wing than as a Chicago Blackhawk, and as a Montreal Canadien. Amazingly.

When Chelios signed yet another one-year deal with Detroit last summer, Holland said yesterday, it was with the understanding that it was likely his last contract as a Red Wing.

Now it's officially his last, but Chelly still wants to play. And Holland, for the record, believes he still can play.

But there's no room in Detroit, especially with the emergence of young defenseman Jonathan Ericsson.

Still, Chelios, who's Hall of Fame-bound, did alright by spending ten years in Detroit.

Ten years in which he planted a second set of roots in Motown; another restaurant bearing his name, and community involvement. Plus very generous media availability.

As much as I would like to see it, I can't imagine Chris Chelios, at age 47, being signed by another NHL team. He played in the '09 playoffs briefly, and there were some "uh-oh" moments.

Senior moments, if you will.

But he dressed and took warmups before all the Stanley Cup Finals games in Detroit, probably out of deference. No doubt he was chomping at the bit to get on the ice, in some fashion. Even for warmups.

The Red Wings did alright by Chelly, too. Let's not forget that. They made it work to have him on the roster for the past few seasons, when other teams might have cut bait. When a tragic double murder took place in his restaurant the day after New Year's, 2007, the Red Wings told him to take as much time as he needed before returning to the ice.

The Red Wings treated Chelios well, and he did the same in return -- for both the team and the city.

For ten years -- longer than anyone could have anticipated.

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