Two of the greatest players in the history of the game made monumental news Thursday, one by announcing he’s leaving the game the other by returning to a new role with enormous administrative skates to fill.
The first is Chris Chelios who, for the first time since mastodons roamed the earth, will not be part of the hockey world. The 56-year-old Chelios announced Thursday morning that he is leaving the Detroit Red Wings after a 19-year career as a player and in management. The latter is Jayna Hefford, one of the greatest players women’s hockey has ever produced and a 2018 inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame, who takes over the Canadian Women’s Hockey League as interim commissioner, and head of hockey operations and player development.
For Chelios, it became time for him to go back to his roots in Chicago. “For me, this is an opportunity to move back to Chicago to be closer to family, and in particular my mother,” Chelios said in a statement. “I began to seriously consider moving home last February after the passing of my father. Now that my children have all graduated, it seems like the ideal time for my wife, Tracee, and I to make the move.”
There’s no doubt the hockey world is a lesser place without Chelios in it. From the time he burst onto the NHL scene with the Montreal Canadiens after the 1984 Olympics, Chelios has been a larger-than-life personality in the game. A three-time Norris Trophy winner, Chelios equalled Gordie Howe with 26 NHL seasons and was a standout for three Original Six teams in Montreal, Chicago and Detroit. After retiring from the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010, Chelios joined the Red Wings front office, largely in an advisory role. It’s likely we haven’t seen the last of Chelios, a fitness guru who essentially was born to play hockey.
And for Hefford, it’s a completely new beginning, taking over the CWHL from Brenda Andress, who announced Wednesday that she will be leaving the league at the end of this month. Any success the league has had has Andress’ fingerprints on it and Hefford, who is wrapping up a hockey school in Kingston, Ont., knows she faces a challenge. There are few players as decorated as Hefford was, both domestically and internationally. When she retired from the CWHL, she did so as its all-time leading scorer and a four-time Olympic gold medallist and seven-time World Champion. In fact, the league’s MVP award bears her name. “I have a lot of studying to do and I’ll spend the next couple of weeks getting up to speed on that,” Hefford said in an interview with thehockeynews.com. “I think the thing that everyone is talking about is the NHL getting involved and the one league and I still have to get up to speed on that stuff, but our goal is to be the best professional hockey league.”
But like many in the women’s game, Hefford sees future growth in the game in one strong North American league rather than two. She doesn’t profess to know exactly how that would happen or how it would look, but feels the game can best progress by having all the top players in the world playing with and against each other.
“Even from the time when I played, I always believed that if you want to showcase your sport, you have to have the best players there,” Hefford said. “I truly believe that we have to get to the point where we have one professional league. We’re still trying to gain respect from people, we’re still trying to generate more fans and in order to do that, we have to have the best players. That’s a challenge in front of me, to really kind of understand the challenges of each league and how we can find a way to get all the best players together.”
Hefford faces another challenge in terms of the league’s front office. In the last 11 months, 11 people have left the league or will leave the league either as governors or members of the board of directors and as it stands now, the league has only one governor, W. Graeme Roustan, owner of The Hockey News.
In addition to Andress, former Calgary Flames executive Brian Burke, former Olympian Cassie Campbell-Pascall, executive director of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Foundation Michael Bartlett, businesswoman Arlene Dickinson and philanthropist Sandi Treliving all have resigned as league governors. In addition, businessman Mike McCarron resigned as a league director, as did prominent banker Carol Hall, both of whom resigned after short stints as directors. Prominent Toronto lawyer Jill McCutcheon left when her term expired. And director Peter Zukow, a prominent Toronto businessman has informed the league that he will not be seeking a new term when his term ends next month. Kathleen Kauth, Hefford’s partner, resigned when Hefford’s name was brought forward as a candidate to become interim commissioner.
“I think consistency is always a positive thing, but so is fresh blood and new ideas,” Hefford said. “I have no background information in terms of the cause of the turnover. The challenges we face are big. I have a lot of relationships in the game and I’m hoping to attract some people to get on board with it.”
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