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One Man’s Cheli

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Chris Chelios is my favorite goddamn hockey player.

While playing hockey in the driveway as a kid, I wasn’t imagining deking around players like Fedorov. I wasn’t imagining speeding through defenders to get a breakaway like Bure. I was imagining leveling someone who had the nerve to try and stick handle around me, then go the other way to score on a slap shot. I wasn’t about destroying people like Scott Stevens. I wanted to remind players that trying to score on me came with a hefty price. I was the skinniest kid yet Chris Chelios showed me I could play above my size. Hockey has been in my life since birth. I’m not joking, my entry into this world was announced at a Blackhawks game. So when he was traded to Chicago, my early days were spent watching him assert his unreal dominance as an elite defender. Growing up with Chelios as a hockey icon is about as close as I think I can feel to growing up with the likes of Howe, Orr, Gretzky, and Richard. So with the news of my favorite goddamn hockey player leaving the Red Wings to go back to his Chicago home to be with his family, I’m verklempt. Thusly, as one does in these situations, I’m bound by hockey law to reflect on this. So let’s start with...

“LOOK! I’M CHRIS CHELIOS!”

Every fall and winter, I got to bundle up and fire plastic pucks at my poor father who wore no padding whatsoever. Stick handling was less important to me at the time because I was laser focused on setting up a shot. Left point. Right Point. Slot. Left Circle. Right Circle. Every slapper was pure joy. Watching pucks smack the back of the net felt like leveling up. And of course, the constant refrain: “Look! I’m Chris Chelios!”. Seeing him play was bonkers for me. When I heard a player say how Chelios played bigger than he was, that was the catalyst that let me know I could play this game. While I never pursued it professionally, I still love lacing the skates up and thinking back to when the driveway was Chicago Stadium and I was #7. There were some glaring ups and downs of being a Hawks fan back then. Getting swept by Pittsburgh stunk, the games weren’t always on TV, and those damn Red Wings were getting pretty effing good around the time that my guy Cheli was playing at the top of his game.

My favorite player was playing on my team. What more could a hockey kid ask for. I was content and happy to watch him play regardless of result. Around that time, Hawks owner Bill “Dollar Bill” Wirtz had started to allow home games to be televised via Pay-Per-View. My father, a Chicago sports TV Producer, worked at SportsChannel where he helped bring to the fans, “HawkVision”, a service that brought the Blackhawks to your home. One of my all time favorite commercials for this had the greatest reading in all of commercial production by my guy Cheli.

Just absolute Don Draper level marketing.

With the winds of change hitting the team, there were also changes about to happen in my personal life. During the ‘94 season, my dad’s channel was airing anything and everything they could to highlight and celebrate the farewell season to Chicago Stadium. As Executive Producer, he oversaw many of the great moments leading to the last games at the arena. While my father was producing some of his proudest work to date, behind the scenes, he was battling an unscrupulous boss. “Swimming with Sharks” Kevin Spacey level awful. I’m sure you want to say the usual cliches, “Hottest Fire makes the Strongest Steel”, etc, etc, BUT that doesn’t mean you get carte blanche to be a consummate jerk. With the Hawks about to finish their final season at the “Gray Lady on Madison”, the stage was also set for an event that would ultimately send my family to Detroit.

The Blackhawks were matched up with the Maple leafs in the 1994 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Leafs led the series 2-1 and Game 4 was at Chicago Stadium. The game went to Overtime tied 3-3 and Jeremy Roenick was flying the whole way to the extra frame. Overtime starts and, well, you can watch the video. I know this has been heavy on Hawks stuff but bear with me. And look! We get to watch the Leafs get handed an “L” by Roenick in OT:

(Sidebar: The look on Darren Pang’s face just as JR walks up? Pure surprise because the TV Truck had no idea Roenick was gonna stop to talk and had to roll with him walking up. Sometimes the you cover the moment, other times, the moment walks right up to chat.)

Now, notice how they showed every angle know to man on that play. Multiple times. Great goal, Leafs blow chance to go ahead 3-1, great highlight for the Chicago fans to see over and over again. Remember that.

The next day my dad goes to work and is greeted with the sight of the program scheduler leaving Mega Awful Boss’ office in tears. My dad knows he must be next in line for whatever just happened. Boss guy is livid for some reason. My dad has run interference and bent over backwards in tons of ways for this guy because he’s notoriously not a good manager. Mega Awful Boss regales my dad with news that an article was written about the game and there was a sentence admonishing the broadcast. “Hey HawkVision, how about a few less commercials and a few more replays.” (Clearly not the case as the video demonstrates). So my dad informs his boss that that’s absurd as they showed it repeatedly, basically broke it down until people practically had it memorized. Boss man is still pissed. My dad then asks, “Well, did you think we showed it enough?”

Boss replies, “I didn’t watch.” A supervisor yelling at his employees about something he himself didn’t even take the care to watch. And being wrong about what he’s on a tirade for? Ding, Ding, Ding! There it is, the moment of truth has arrived for my pops. He stood up and said, “That’s B%&$#@it!” and went to his office. Mega Awful Boss comes over and my dad thought, for a brief shining moment, Boss man had to have changed his mind after having it explained clearly to him. Instead, Boss man walks in and says, “You ever do that again, you better keep walking.”

Message received. My dad left the channel, went to work for the Chicago Wolves, and produced IHL Hockey until a job offer materialized in his hometown of Detroit. We moved Christmas 1997...leaving Chicago and my favorite player behind. I was broken up for sure. The team itself was spiraling down, the ownership was just a crappy as ever, and I wasn’t going to be able to watch Cheli. I kept thinking about my favorite player. I played hockey in my new driveway still saying I was #7. Still, I felt like I left him. It hurt a bunch. Sometimes, though, the universe hears the heart ache and will set in motion events that will heal your soul.

“CHELIOS IS A RED WING!?!?”

Getty Images

Sports wise, moving to Detroit was in no way tough. The Red Wings were in the midst of going back to back. Kind of hard not to be excited for that. Growing up I wasn’t anti-Red Wings, my whole family is from here, we drove back and forth all the time for holidays and such. The rivalry between the Wings and Hawks was great for me because no matter what happened, I won. But one team was going in a different direction and it made sense for me to adopt my new town’s team. Still had a soft spot for the Blackhawks due to my favorite player though.

Personal life wise, the move was rough because I had only one friend when I left Illinois and then immediately had none. Family was great but seeing them all the time wasn’t the highest on my priority list. So I began the search for friends and such through sports. Specifically, my dad got tickets to games for free so it was a great way to see if I could make some friends. Alas, that didn’t really work out too well since folks would then only talk to me if I had tickets. But I trudged forth, getting new interests since sports started to wane a little for me. It was at that time a blessed thing happened.

March 23rd, 1999. Chris Chelios. My favorite goddamn hockey player.....is now a Detroit Red Wing. Holy S^%$. He’s wearing #24. That’s my birthday number. HOLY S^%*!!!

CHELIOS IS A RED WING!?!? Cue the fireworks. I’m as giddy as a school boy. Which at the time, I was a school boy, so I was as giddy as me. My love for hockey grew back to its normal height and then some. I’m overjoyed seeing my sports idol playing in my city again. The 2002 NHL season happens. The Wings had one of the greatest, if not THE GREATEST, assemblage of players. They stampede to the playoffs. They stumbled for what felt like an eternity against Vancouver and then BAM, they’re at home against the Hurricanes ready to hoist the Cup. Shanny scores. The clock is dying. 3, 2, 1.....pure elation! Then I saw my favorite image during a Stanley Cup winning game:

Chelios skipping on the ice and jumping into Hasek’s arms. These two played with one another when the Hawks had a shot but couldn’t win. 10 years later, they’re lifting the cup together. I’m watching my favorite player win his second Stanley Cup. Wearing my number. Good lordy, what a feeling. I had to stop for a moment to reflect on just how freaking awesome it is that I moved to a new city and Chris Chelios joined me just 2 years later. I will now take this opportunity to take credit for it happening because the universe heard me being sad. So you’re welcome, fellow Wings fans.

It was also funny to look back at all the times Chelios stated he hated the Wings. Here he was, immediately making an impact and feeling like a Red Wing pretty much from the get go, but just 2 and a half months prior to donning the winged wheel...

While the video is funny, Chelios describes in his book, “Made in America”, what led up to the trade to Detroit. The Blackhawks all but wrote him off and the Wings demonstrated to him they wanted him. So it’s maybe not too far fetched to think coming to a place you despise isn’t that hard.

After the 2002 championship came the excitement of trying to repeat but then the Ducks happened. Then the Flames happened. What’s next? The ‘04-’05 lockout. That one stung pretty damn hard. It was my senior year of high school and I had a tradition of going to games with some classmates and we were robbed of going one last time before we all went to build our careers. I saw Chelios playing in other leagues to stay fit, which was cool. Moving away for college though kinda put a dampener on being able to see him up close. While at school in Florida, I watched as the Wings were hot once more, making their way to the playoffs, only to be ousted by Pronger and the Oilers. But Chelios was there, working as hard as ever. I moved back home after school and watched as the ‘08 Wings took the league by storm again. #24 was right in the middle of it, though Mike Babcock was, uhm, creative with his ice time. In his book, Chelios described how he was shaving after beating the Dallas Stars and Babcock told him, “You are done. You are not playing any more in the playoffs.” If I was a player and I heard that from my coach, I’d be utterly shattered. But Chelios himself says he wasn’t helping the team so while it was tough to swallow, he knew the team was benefitting from him sitting. The NHL is a Bottom-Line Business and Babcock represents that fully.

I had tickets to Game 5 against Pittsburgh and was hoping to witness a Cup win in person. I knew he hadn’t played in any of the Final up to that point so I was mad. No way the Wings were gonna win without my favorite player on the ice. That night, they didn’t and I was so scared it was my fault. (It probably was, so, sorry.) After the game I was walking back to my car with my dad and brother. We were parked right next to Cheli’s Chili. (To this day, the best naming of a restaurant since Stan Mikita’s Donuts) As we got to our car, out of the back of Cheli’s Chili emerged the man himself. A black polo shirt with jeans and sandals. My fave player was right there. I wanted to rush over and apologize because I said they can’t win unless you were playing. I also wanted to thank him for coming to Detroit back in 1999 because I was spiritually pretty lonely. His presence made me feel like I could make a great home here in Detroit.

Alas, the moment was fleeting and I only exchanged a shrug with him. “What’re you gonna do?”, as they say. Two days later I was in a bar with my buddy Rob and we watched as the Red Wings captured their 11th Stanley Cup. I was once again gifted with an everlasting image.

3 Time Stanley Cup Champion Chris Chelios.

Hell of a nice ring to it.

I’d say that catches us up to my current feeling of: What to do with the news of him leaving Detroit to go back to Chicago? Not only that, he’s already been named an ambassador for the Blackhawks. I’d say my feelings might not be the same as other Wings fans. I’ve seen a few spout that he’s betraying us by going to the Hawks. I’m very curious how the Blackhawks fanbase (Established 2009) will receive him, seeing as they booed him once already...

As he says in the video, let bygones be bygones. I’m at peace with him going home. To say he’s earned it is an understatement. He deserves to go to his roots and be with his family. He’s a Hall of Famer. I was there when he went in. He’s got an all time career and I’m glad to have been around him for the majority of it. I’ll miss bumping into him at the new arena. I’ll miss being able to capture random moments of him popping up somewhere where a camera is pointing like this gem...

With so many kids and fans following their heroes, it’s not every day your hero follows you. One day I hope to shake his hand and let him know just how much he meant to a kid moving away from the only place he knows. I bet that’s a feeling he knows all too well. I hope that the Blackhawks treat him lightyears better than the last time he was with the organization. He’s a Chicagoan. That will never change. And from one Chicagoan to another, I’m so honored to have taken the ride with him.

In another passage from his book, which you should absolutely read, he details the events surrounding Game 6 against Pittsburgh in 2008:

I tried to be a team player even when I wasn’t in the lineup. The team song that season was The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.” I think I’ve established that I don’t like any song that is overplayed. But before Game 6 in Pittsburgh, I walked into the dressing room before the game and put that song on the stereo. “This is the last time I’m playing this song,” I said, loud enough for everyone to hear. “This ends tonight.”

I’m unsure if I’ll ever read a cooler paragraph. “Baba O’Riley” is one of my all time favorite songs and to learn its place in Red Wings...no...in Chris Chelios history makes it mean that much more. Each person forms an idea about their idols. Many see Chelios as an agitator, a jerk, or a traitor. I see him as someone who’s doing everything he can to live his best life on and off the ice. He’s also a person who helped cheer up a fan who was unsure about the future. He’s worn the logos of my favorite teams. He’s a no nonsense player who showed that you can play bigger than you are. He’s my favorite goddamn hockey player. But that’s just one man’s Cheli. <3

Jay Tuohey