I was at Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final this past June, and – though the game didn’t end as we would have liked – there was a great moment. Chris Chelios, the Red Wings’ 47-year-old warhorse was taking warm-ups, like he did every night. There was no chance he was going to get into the lineup, the Wings had simply become too deep on the blueline.
As the team slowly vacated the ice and made their way to the locker room and fewer and fewer players were taking shots at an empty net, one couldn’t help but notice Chelios – still circling the zone, stickhanding, and flinging a few wristers. There’s no way of knowing if someone told him to take a few extra laps, or if he was compelled to stay out longer knowing it might be his last time on NHL ice. Soon enough, he was the last Wing out there.
As he slowly made his way to the bench, on his way to the room – presumably to ride the exercise bike like he did every game he was scratched – I started to think, “ya know…this really could be the last time Chris Chelios skates off the ice.” It wasn’t exactly as epic as Steve Yzerman’s last step, obviously, but this is a hockey hero and deserves a warm send-off.
But I wasn’t the only one who noticed. As Chris Chelios strode off-ice, with his head slightly down, Joe Louis Arena rose to its feet, and gave him a rousing ovation. It was the loudest the crowd would be that night. It was nice to see that 19,000 others noticed what I did: there goes one of the baddest-ass hockey players of all time.
It was clear by last January that the Red Wings weren’t going to re-sign Chris Chelios, despite his desire to continue playing and, frankly, his ability to do so (here at TPL we’re pretty sure he’s a cyborg). Ken Holland and Co had decided it was time to move on, get some youth churning, and let Chelios explore other options. Rumor has it Holland told Chelios to call if there are no playing options out there, presumably to offer Chelios a coaching position. But, Cheli doesn’t want to coach. Sure, he enjoyed mentoring the young guns, but he wants to play.
Not surprisingly, there wasn’t a huge market for a defenseman approaching fifty, and he signed in his hometown of Chicago — only with the Wolves of the AHL, and not the Hawks. It’s a great fit because his family can stay in Detroit (his teenage kids are finishing high school and easing into college) and he can get to Michigan in the blink of an eye. He maintains that he’d like to get back to the NHL, but “it would have to take a pretty unique situation.” Chelios made no secret that he’d like to return to the Red Wings, and has – in turn – even declined NHL offers this season.
One might have thought that when Jonathan Ericsson went down with an apparent knee injury that Chris Chelios’ phone might have started ringing. After all, the Wings were down three of their presumed top six defensemen. But, it turned out that Ericsson’s injury wasn’t as severe as it looked, and Nik Kronwall might be back relatively soon, so management turned to guys from Grand Rapids. Doug Janik was called up when it appeared Big Rig might only miss two or three weeks.
Presumably, this ends the journey for Chris Chelios. Sure, he might get an offer after the New Year or near the deadline, but no one should be surprised if his NHL career has come to an end. I hope not, but you’ve got to face facts and at least throw it out there.
If I did witness Chelios’ last stride, it’s the image I’ll choose to remember from Game 7.