Chelios: 'I wish I'd done this 15 years ago'
LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Seconds after finishing a white-knuckled run down the winding bobsled track at the Olympic training facility, Chris Chelios began to wonder if he should have done something safer with his time off from hockey.
Chelios has received the Norris Trophy as the most outstanding defenseman in the NHL three times. He's seen and delivered plenty of big hits in arenas. But after only two training sessions with the U.S. bobsled teams, none looked quite so big as the hit delivered to the two-man team immediately behind him as their sled hurtled into an icy wall.
A month into what should be the NHL season, a third Stanley Cup title is not in Chelios' sights thanks to the lockout. So while his teammates from the Detroit Red Wings packed up to play hockey in Europe, Chelios has sought out a new challenge. He became friends with bobsledders during his three stints on the U.S. Olympic hockey team (1984, 1998, 2002). When he found his colder months suddenly free, he decided to accept a long-standing invitation to try out the different uses for ice.
The sledding isn't just all in fun. Chelios has Greek parents, and Greece doesn't have a four-man bobsled team. If these training sessions work out, the two-time U.S. Olympic hockey team captain could find himself heading back to his fourth Olympic Games: this time playing a new sport, representing a new country.
It's not a total pipedream. He's gone as far as recruiting a fellow Greek-American athlete to the cause. Several weeks back, Chelios convinced Laird Hamilton -- the Wayne Gretzky of the professional surfing world -- to join him on the course. Now, both men are training for a test event in Calgary at the end of November that should establish if they have speed enough to compete in the 2006 Winter Games at Turin, Italy.
"I'm not kidding myself. It's like these guys getting on the ice and trying to play against me," Chelios said. "I wish I'd done this 15 years ago. ... If they need me, I'll compete."
And say goodbye to the NHL? Chelios is currently an unrestricted free agent, and though the Red Wings have expressed an interest in him returning, the lockout may play a significant role in determining whether or not his NHL career ends and his bobsled career begins.
"Who knows," Chelios said, "maybe I have a knack for it."
That's how Chelios and Hamilton wound up trying to fit themselves into a narrow, four-man bobsled, while Steve Holcomb, a national team driver, and other teammates offered advice. Chelios attended a women's team practice several weeks ago, and made a few runs in a two-man sled, so this ride wasn't a totally new experience. But Hamilton described himself as "a virgin," and the four-man sled presents some unique challenges. Even climbing into the sled is difficult, Hamilton said, and he didn't have to start from a full run on an icy slope.
|“||Ice is ice. I'm not steering. I have no desire to steer. But even the biggest, strongest guys have trouble running on ice, so I think I can do that. ”|
|— Chris Chelios on how his hockey acumen may be of benefit in bobsledding|
"I've seen all these guys go down, and they all made it back," he said. "So far, so good."
With a push from three team members, the sled rumbled through the start, accelerating as it dropped into the first turn. Less than a minute later, it shot back into sunlight at the bottom of the ramp, followed by one member of a trailing two-man team, who was in turn followed by his overturned sled.
"That was a reality-check right there," Hamilton said.
Chelios described the experience as "the worst roller-coaster ride you ever took, 10 times over." Achieving any competence at the sport will take practice and training, he said. But some skills from hockey do translate to "sliding," as those involved call it.
"Ice is ice," he said. "I'm not steering. I have no desire to steer. But even the biggest, strongest guys have trouble running on ice, so I think I can do that."
Not that he's rooting for the lockout to drag on. "[The owners] have to know by now that we're not going to accept a [salary] cap," he said. "It's too bad that someone has to have their back against the wall. It's not what you want."
So the plyometric exercises Chelios has been doing to improve his leg strength -- and the practice time on the bobsled run -- may yet prove unnecessary. He brushes off as premature suggestions that he could actually earn a trip to Turin. "I might go as a tourist, for all I know," he said. Hockey remains his great passion. But since his schedule is clear right now anyway ...
"Now that I've got the time, why not?" he said. "It's not like I'm laying around moping."
Aaron Kuriloff is a freelance writer and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.