“I was with Gordie Howe two weeks ago and I promised him I’d quit at 51,” Chelios said Wednesday on a conference call. “I don’t want that. He’s Mr. Hockey.”
Still, the 23-year NHL veteran will set one longevity record next week when he appears in the NHL playoffs for a 22nd year, passing former Boston Bruins’ great Ray Bourque’s mark of 21 years. Howe played in 20 playoff years, the last in 1980 with Hartford.
Chelios missed the playoffs only once in his career with the Chicago Blackhawks in 1997-98 and sits sixth in all-time playoff games with 228. The record of 247 games was set by goaltender Patrick Roy, who has retired.
But with the Red Wings, getting into the post-season hasn’t been a problem since they emerged as a league power in the 1990s. They have made the playoffs for a 16th consecutive season.
And they are in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s first overall team in the regular season for the sixth time in the last 11 years.
“I compare it to when I first got into the league in Montreal (in 1984) – the attitude and tradition in the organization. The pride in putting on the jersey,” he said. “That wasn’t the case 22 years ago in Detroit.
“Their crowds were down. The Illitch family took over as owners and really turned it around. Now there’s a lot of pride in putting on the Red Wings’ jersey, a lot of expectations. It’s probably the most you’ll see of any team in the U.S.”
The Red Wings have done it despite losing some key players through what Chelios called “tragedy or retirement,” like defenceman Vladimir Konstantinov, whose career ended through injuries sustained in a car crash, or defenceman Jiri Fischer, who developed a heart problem.
They also lost their longtime captain Steve Yzerman to retirement after last season and saw stalwart Brendan Shanahan leave as a free agent to the New York Rangers, but they still kept winning.
“The salary cap probably affected our team more than most,” Chelios said.
These days, Chelios is more often associated with the cap and the NHL Players’ Association than with playing hockey.
He was the leader of a group of players that pushed for a review of how Ted Saskin took over as head of the association after the collective bargaining agreement was signed to end the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
Saskin is on paid leave while lawyer Chris Palliare looks into allegations that association officials read players’ private e-mails. Lawyer Sheila Block is conducting a separate review of Saskin’s hiring.
Chelios said he felt “an obligation as the oldest player in the league” to get involved in what he felt was an improper change of leadership from former union head Bob Goodenow to Saskin.
“Things were going so well during the Goodenow era and guys got a little slack,” he said. “When it came to a situation where we faced a little adversity, we really failed miserably as a union.”
He blames no one, adding that the players on the executive committee are not lawyers, but said the association should look at changing the role played by the committee in future negotiations with the league.
“In my opinion, a group of professionals who can come in and do the negotiations and take a lot of the burden off the executive committee, because it was a great responsibility.”
But he said recent events have helped bring a fractured union together.
“The key is that everyone’s on the same page,” he said. “That hasn’t been the case in 19 months and that’s a big plus for our union.”