- E.J. Hradek, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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When you click on chrischelios.com, the website for Cheli's Chili Bar (locations in Detroit and Dearborn), don't expect a warm-and-fuzzy welcome. The site's host will greet you in character: Serious. Intimidating. Threatening.
In full hockey gear, save for his helmet, Chris Chelios leans against the boards. He is not smiling. Smiles he saves for family, teammates and friends like Eddie Vedder and Kid Rock. Instead, Chelios' head is cocked to his left, black eyebrow arched as he glares at you. He looks to be sizing you up. Less "Welcome to Cheli's" than "What do you want?"
And, in this case, looks don't deceive. The 46-year-old Detroit defenseman, who began his pro career in 1984—during Ronald Reagan's first term—didn't become the oldest active pro in the Big Four sports and second-oldest in NHL history (Wings icon Gordie Howe played until he was 52) by chance. No, Chelios is an athletic relic precisely because of his palpable passion for physical competition; he is always looking to mix it up. Tell this blueliner-restaurateur that he can't do something, and he'll show you just how well he can. Three times.
This mind-set explains why Chelios, a six-foot, 191-pound son of Greek immigrants, has lasted 24 seasons in the rugged, violent world of sticks, pucks and fists. It's why the first U.S.-born former captain of the Canadiens still spends summer mornings pedaling a mountain bike up steep Malibu inclines after grueling weight training. It's why the first Chicago native to captain the Blackhawks wouldn't keep his mouth shut as his union—the NHL Players Association—imploded during a season-killing lock-out. It's why the four-time U.S. Olympian won't quit: Ask about the 2010 Vancouver Games, when he'll be 48, and Chelios says simply, "I'd love to play."
And it's why his Red Wings, with Cup-quality talent but questionable spine, need the player they call The Godfather now more than ever.
Ten months before the NHL will award the 2007-08 Stanley Cup, early one August morning, the SoCal sun is heating up the black rubber mats behind the original Gold's Gym in Venice Beach. Surrounded by a chain-link fence and chipped green cement wall, Chelios and a few other NHLers sweat through a 60-minute exercise circuit devised by trainer T.R. Goodman. The routine is an off-season ritual for Chelios, who owns an oceanfront home in Malibu. He met Goodman in the early 1990s, when the trainer worked with former NHL tough guy Alan May. Chelios has trained with Goodman ever since, at the gym made famous by a certain bodybuilder turned actor turned governor.
Watching Chelios grind through each set, you can't help but notice something curious: As Chelios moves through reps with a consistent rhythm, his workout pals (all younger, some by a lot) take an extra breath or two or five. Chelios credits good genes—"I've never been someone who gets too tired"—but Goodman knows it's about more than genetic luck. "He's so competitive," the trainer says. "He's willing to do whatever's necessary."
Which is probably why one killer workout per summer day isn't enough. After cruising home along the Pacific Coast Highway in his 1972 Chevy K5 Blazer convertible, Chelios grabs his mountain bike and meets a group led by Don Wildman, the 74-year-old founder of Bally Total Fitness, and surfing legend Laird Hamilton. They push one another for more than 90 minutes in 90˚ heat up and down the dusty hills that rise from the beach toward the Santa Monica Mountains. After lunch, Chelios and one or more of his four kids—sons Dean (18) and Jake (16), daughters Caley (14) and Tara (12)—paddle- surf in the ocean, the day's final workout. "On that board, in the elements, you have to work everything," Dad says.
And you wanna say back: But why? Why does someone this old, who's already won two Cups and three Norris Trophies, keep pushing? It can't be just a competitive nature; every athlete at this level hates to admit that he or she is getting old, but most Chelios' age have long since retired. All of them, come to think of it. There has to be another reason, right?
Maybe not. Maybe if you got so good at something you loved, and were paid so well to do it, the idea of stopping wouldn't merit real consideration from you either. "I never think about retiring," Chelios says, convincingly, when asked about motivation.
The one thing that might make him think about it?
"My kids," Chelios says. "My two boys really love hockey. They're like me—in the mix of everything, always the first to jump in to help a teammate. If they needed my help to get an opportunity to play somewhere, I'd give it up to help them." Otherwise: "Age is like a black cloud over me. I hate it. It's cost me millions of dollars—not that I need it, but money is money. And it's cost me opportunity."
In the NHL, the formula for mattering (and making money) is simple: minutes = respect. And in his prime, Chelios, an 11-time All-Star, got 30 or more minutes of respect per game, as much as any player in the league. First in Montreal, then in Chicago, Chelios was on the ice in every key situation. And when the 37-year-old arrived in Detroit, in March 1999, future Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman didn't hesitate to lean on his future Hall of Famer. "I had ultraconfidence in him," Bowman says. "He just never gets flustered."
Same with Dave Lewis, who took over for Bowman in 2002 and tapped Chelios for more than 20 minutes a game. But Lewis was fired after a pair of playoff flops, replaced in 2005 by Mike Babcock. The former defenseman is 15 months younger than Chelios, and the two were opponents in the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League in 1979-80. Tasked with getting the Wings back to the Finals, the coach used Chelios less to keep him fresher longer. In his first year behind the bench, Babcock trimmed Chelios' regular-season ice time from 21:21 minutes per game to 18:29. His minutes dipped to 18:08 last season, and through 62 games of this one (he missed six games with a chipped right fibula), Chelios is averaging 16:55. Worse, though still a key penalty killer who's also on the ice late to protect narrow leads, Chelios no longer sees power-play time and rarely skates in obvious offensive situations—against, say, a weak opposing line. Babcock also insists on giving him a game off from time to time.
All of which just drives Chelios crazy.
"At this point I'm content because I have family here," he says, choosing his words carefully. "But I still think I can contribute more to a team and make a difference offensively like I have in the past. If we weren't winning I'd probably have a tougher time accepting my role. I'm not saying I'd leave, but I'm not saying I wouldn't." He could if he chose to: Chelios is on his third consecutive one-year deal with Detroit.
And if he wanted to prove a point about his game, last year's playoffs would be Exhibit A. With his D decimated by injuries, Babcock tapped Chelios' back more often than usual during the Western semis and finals against the supersize Sharks and Ducks. In Detroit's 2-0 Game 6 semis clincher in San Jose, Chelios clocked 26:15 minutes (only fellow backliner Nicklas Lidstrom had more). He assisted on both Wings goals and helped lock down a potent offense. "Chelios was phenomenal," Babcock said afterward, his strategy of giving the ancient warrior an occasional blow having proved out.
But the Wings were eliminated by the Ducks in the conference finals, and Chelios left the ice without participating in the postseries handshakes. In fact, he left the Honda Center without speaking to anyone. "It hit me hard," he says. "I felt physically sick. I just had to get away."
He takes things hard off the ice, too. After the NHL lockout ended in 2005, Chelios and several other players challenged their union. Chelios in particular was upset by the exit of longtime NHLPA executive director Bob Goodenow and the hasty hiring of his replacement, Ted Saskin. The dissidents didn't like how Goodenow was pushed aside late in the lockout, and they believed the search for his replacement had been subverted by Saskin and key members of the executive board. After more than a year of pushing for an investigation, the group filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board against the executive board, claiming the union's constitution had been violated by the hiring. The group gained vindication last spring when Saskin was discovered to have been
secretly reading players' e-mails on the union's web server. He was shown the door, replaced by former assistant U.S. attorney Paul Kelly.
Most players—many with more to gain than someone near the end of his career—were willing to skate away from the fight. Not Chelios. He treated it as a personal issue, another challenge to be met with full intensity. "What happened wasn't right," he says. "That's why I got involved."
This season, his focus is on winning another Cup. Detroit leads the NHL in wins, points, goals for, goals against, shots for and fewest shots against. And though they won't say it, the Wings have their sights set on a conference finals rematch with the defending-champ Ducks, who've been energized by the return of blueline stalwart Scott Niedermayer and fleet wing Teemu Selanne. And the Sharks would dearly love some payback as well for last spring's loss to Detroit. But winning in the post-season is about hot goalies, key injuries and—when you get down to it—who wants it more.
Welcome to Cheli's.