ROSEMONT, Ill. – Chris Chelios’s first shot attempt at the start of a two-hour practice Wednesday eluded the goalie’s reach and landed in the net.
At age 47, Chelios raised his arms straight above his head in mock triumph. Happiness, as he’s proving these days, means being on the ice with a hockey team – no matter where you are or who you’re playing for.
It’s no longer the NHL, where he played for 25 years, won the Norris Trophy three times as the league’s best defenceman and was a member of three Stanley Cup champions.
Chelios has landed in the American Hockey League with the Chicago Wolves, who play their games at the suburban All-State Arena. That’s 27 kilometres from the United Center – where Chelios was once a star for his hometown Blackhawks, before he was traded away to the Detroit Red Wings in 1999.
Chelios didn’t hook up with an NHL team after playing only 28 games last season with the Red Wings. Still, the game was in his blood. He even looked at playing in Russia, just to keep lacing up the skates.
He wasn’t ready to retire like, say, Brett Favre, and then perhaps try a comeback at a later date.
“I want to make sure there is nothing left when I retire, so I don’t want to be one of those guys who comes back,” Chelios said. “Not that I don’t admire what Favre is doing. I’d love to have the same story he’s got right now. Like I said, I enjoy the game just like I did when I started. … I’m really excited. It’s a great old building and it’s going to be fun.”
Chelios started skating with the Wolves last week and after playing so few games last season – part of that due to a leg injury sustained in a pre-season game – said he needed to work on his on-ice conditioning.
Some of his teammates are the same age – 20 – as his oldest son, Dean, who is playing at Michigan State. Another son, Jake, plays for the Chicago Steel of the U.S. Hockey League.
“I’m fortunate I got a couple of sons I prepared all summer with like I was going to play. I didn’t get picked up (by the NHL),” Chelios said. “So I’m just going to keep going and hope things keep working out. As long as I’m enjoying playing and helping the team out, that’s all that matters.”
The Wolves, a franchise since 1994, have four minor league championships but this year is off to a 1-5 start and fired coach Don Granato on Monday. The workout Wednesday came under new coach Don Lever, who began this season as a scout for the Blackhawks.
Now Lever will be behind the bench and says his emphasis will be on defence. And guess who he’s counting on to teach his young players?
“You know what? He’s still the smartest player out on the ice, I’ll tell you that,” Lever said of Chelios. “He could add a lot just teaching the young guys. … What do you say when you got a future Hall of Famer on your hockey team?”
Chelios, whose career began in 1983 with Montreal, joked that he was trying to remember if he played against or did anything wrong to the 56-year-old Lever. Their NHL careers overlapped briefly. Lever finished playing in 1987.
“I hope I didn’t,” Chelios said.
For 21-year-old Wolves right-winger Spencer Machacek, who will have to skate against Chelios at times in practice, just being on the ice with a player of such reputation is a big thrill.
“It’s a huge honour,” Machacek said. “He sees the ice so well and I think he won three Stanley Cups, so that shows right there he’s a winner. … He’s in such good shape, that’s why he’s still playing. He’s out here to help the young guys out and get better himself.”
Chelios, who signed a professional tryout contract, is scheduled to make his debut with the Wolves on Friday against Manitoba. It’s not Chelios’ first venture in the AHL. He played two games with the Grand Rapids Griffins last season.
“Everybody is always looking for leadership and I hope I can provide that,” he said. “I’ve been in this role for a while now because of my age.”
Chelios will quickly point out the difference between the NHL and the AHL.
“Obviously the NHL is another step quicker. The skill level a step better, but there are plenty of guys in this league who could be playing in the NHL,” he said.
Chelios, who was booed loudly while with the Red Wings when they would play the Blackhawks in Chicago, doesn’t expect to hear that kind of reception again.
“I hope not,” he said with a laugh. “I’m on the Wolves now. I’m on a Chicago team.”