- Melissa Isaacson, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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It has been a long time since Chris Chelios has played 20-25 minutes a game.
"A really long time," he says.
If he's tired, it's the good kind. But at 47, he doesn't look all that tired. Not on this day after practice. Not even so much after the bus rides that sometimes have Chelios and his Chicago Wolves' teammates getting to their next hotel in the wee hours of game day.
OK, he doesn't love that part.
"You don't expect him to recover as quickly as he does, but it's unbelievable," Wolves winger Brett Sterling says. "Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and I don't think I'll make it five more years, let alone to 40."
Sterling is 25. When Chelios broke into the NHL, says Sterling, "I was just about to be born."
Almost half of Sterling's teammates were even further down the developmental chain than that, as in not yet a glimmer in their parents' eyes. Two are the same age as Chelios' oldest son, Dean, who is a freshman on the Michigan State hockey team.
"The other day, an oldies song came on in the locker room, and we were all asking Cheli if it was his iPod," Sterling says.
And which song was that?
"It was a song from the early '50s," Sterling says. "We were all laughing."
But enough with the age jokes. At least for now.
Chelios is serious. A three-time Norris Trophy winner and future Hall of Famer who has played in more NHL games than any other American-born player (1,645), the former Blackhawks defenseman (nine seasons) and Detroit Red Wing (10) is now playing for Chicago's AHL team because he is not through with the NHL -- or at least with his desire to return.
"Everybody's goal is to make the NHL, and I'm trying to get there and trying to help these young guys get there too, so it's a win-win situation," he says.
In nine games with the Wolves, Chelios has posted multiple assists four times and leads Wolves defensemen with eight points (one goal, eight assists), ranking fifth on the team. He also ranks second on the team and sixth in the league with a plus-10 plus/minus rating.
"He can still be a 5-6 defenseman for somebody," said Wolves general manager Wendell Young, who's a year younger than Chelios.
And despite the change of plans by Phoenix GM Don Maloney, who expressed interest in Chelios for his injury-depleted team and scouted him on a recent road trip before electing to go a different route, Young says there are other teams interested.
The Blackhawks do not appear to be one of them, and though Chelios concedes wearing the Indian head again would be a "dream come true," he understands. But it doesn't stop him from hoping Blackhawks fans take him into their hearts once again, and he was heartened by the reception he received recently at the United Center.
"I understand the animosity with the Detroit thing," he says. "Everybody hated Detroit and kind of viewed it as the enemy, and I understand that. But I'm not with Detroit anymore. I'm a Chicago kid, and I always will be.
"I got a pretty nice ovation at Jeremy [Roenick's] ceremony the other night. It was the first time I wasn't able to stay off the jumbotron for fear of being booed. Jeremy and I were on at the same time, and they were pretty nice to me. At the end of the day, I think they understand, and hopefully they'll forgive me."
If Chelios is to latch on with another NHL team, says Young, "the X factor is that he'll lead the guys."
Young says he can already see the difference in his team.
"You see the guys moving the puck better in the neutral zone, playing off their defense," he says. "Before Chris even gets the puck, he knows where he's going with it, and he has talked to a bunch of players about that."
Chelios also is the quintessential practice player: first guy in the training room, last guy out. And, they say, one of the guys who exudes a love of the game.
"He must really love the game because he's still trying to get back to the NHL," Young says. "He's willing to come and basically prove himself again, and he has."
But Chelios laughs when you suggest that somehow he must be setting his ego aside to do this.
"If you grow up on the South Side of Chicago, in Evergreen Park where I did, you don't have an ego," he says. "You'd get your head knocked off if you had an ego. Everyone was pretty humble, pretty hard-working. I never had an ego. Anybody I've played with can tell you that."
Instead, he calls the Wolves "a perfect situation." He is back in Chicago where he lives with his parents and son Jake, 18, who plays for the USHL Chicago Steel, and it's an easy plane ride back to Detroit to see Tracee, his wife of 20 years, and daughters Caley, 16 and Tara, 14.
"I just knew I had to play if I was going to continue to play," he says. "Before camp started, I sat out for two weeks. If I sat out any longer than that, I think it would have been time to hang them up."
If anything, his time with the Wolves, which will go no longer than two 25-game contracts, has only reinforced how much he still loves playing.
"Unfortunately, my role in Detroit was pretty tough, basically killing penalties," Chelios says. "But the reward was being on such a good team and being able to survive 10 years at my age with that team.
"This is great. There's nothing like game shape."
He says he has "no long-term goals," which works out well at 47.
"I don't know if I'm confident or not [about getting back to the NHL]," he says. "My biggest concern was coming here and being able to play well and contribute, and so far I think I've been able to do that. If it's a stepping stone, fine. If not, after the 25 games, we'll see what I have to do."
In the meantime, his presence has already been felt at the box office. Not just at Wolves games, where they have noticed a slight bump in attendance, but on the road. An opponent heralded Chelios' arrival in town in their advertising and fans in opposing arenas are seen wearing his No. 7 jersey.
If there are others worried about how it looks for a player of his stature to play minor-league hockey, that's their problem.
"The biggest issue with me is that I am enjoying myself," he says. "I'm not worried about my legacy. As long as I'm helping the team, and I think I've contributed pretty well in the first month, that's the most important thing. I know when it's time to quit. I'm not going to go embarrass myself or the team."
Melissa Isaacson is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.
Even at 47, Chris Chelios couldn't imagine quitting hockey. And the Wolves are happy to have him.