Chelios' relevance goes beyond defying Father Time

Updated: May 15, 2007, 12:24 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- A group of reporters waits long after the rest of the Red Wings have showered and gone home on the off day between Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference finals in Detroit. Chris Chelios finally emerges, grudgingly agreeing to meet with the media. He knows the nature of many of the questions he'll face.

Chelios is asked who the oldest player he played with was, and struggles to come up with an answer. Guy Lafleur, Bob Gainey, perhaps Larry Robinson. They were all in their mid-30s, though, a decade or so younger than Chelios is now.

Does he remember the first time someone asked him when he might retire or when his age first became part of the Chelios equation?

"No, I don't remember that. It's been asked a hundred times, but I can't remember the first time, no," Chelios answers, barely concealing his disdain for the line of questioning.

Chris Chelios
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAs the playoffs wear on, Chris Chelios has seen his ice time increase.

It's funny how things go.

With each passing day, Chelios becomes less a flesh-and-blood hockey player and more like a museum piece or freak of nature. None of this is his doing, of course. Chelios merely shows up to do what he's been doing since he was a raw rookie with the unruly mop of black hair back in 1984.

But that was 23 years ago. Now, his age precedes him like a town crier heralding the arrival of some mystic and shuffles behind him like a constant companion, a shadowy reference point for all things.

Case in point: Game 1 against Anaheim. Chelios was knocked down when hit from behind by Corey Perry. Chelios looked a little shaken, but had the hit been levied against Nicklas Lidstrom or Brett Lebda, it's doubtful it would have received as much attention.

Why? Because Chris Chelios is a 45-year-old man who this spring became the second-oldest player to score a goal in the playoffs (Red Wings icon Gordie Howe was the oldest at age 52). By the end of these playoffs, it's possible Chelios will become the all-time leader in playoff games played. Ever.

(Perry, for the record, will turn 22 this week. He was born a year after Chelios played his first 15 NHL playoff games.)

Chelios arrived in Detroit at the 1999 trade deadline. One of the story lines at the time was how he would fit in given that everyone who's ever played against Chelios pretty much can't stand the guy. Now he is one of the most dynamic personalities in the dressing room. When the team goes out, it's Chelios that makes sure everyone gets home safely. He makes sure when the Wings leave, people won't grouse and complain that they were treated badly.

"He's the ultimate team guy. He never leaves anyone out. He never singles anyone out. He looks after things," said Lebda, who has been Chelios' defense partner for most of the last two seasons.

The Wings gave up two first-round picks and a first-round player in Anders Eriksson to get Chelios. It seemed like a lot for a player nearing the end of his career who most figured would be around for a couple of years at the most.

"Well, I'm not a thinker, that's for sure. I usually react, so that probably helps these guys. I try and keep it simple, so that makes it easier on these guys, too."
-- Chris Chelios on his mentoring style

"Well, he's fooled us. He showed us what we know," Detroit executive vice president Jim Devellano said.

To understand what Chelios means to this team, it's important to try to peel away the age wrapper. Sure, it's part of his identity, but it's not what defines him.

This is what defines him: When Lebda made the Red Wings out of training camp a season ago, he was partnered with Chelios. A native of Buffalo Grove, Ill., Lebda had grown up idolizing Chelios, who remains one of the most popular Chicago Blackhawks of all time. Lebda still recalls getting Chelios' autograph as a kid. He is almost exactly 20 years younger than his defense partner; and all through his rookie season, Chelios mentored Lebda, supported him and helped him through often difficult periods of learning the NHL game.

"It was a pretty surreal experience," Lebda said. "I learned so much from him just taking care of me. It was a growing process with him."

This season? Chelios told Lebda baby time was over and it was time to grow up.

"He expected more out of me," Lebda said.

Where there had been coddling and patience, there was now constructive criticism and, sometimes, a little tough love.

"There was a lot of yelling. It was kind of like having a second dad," Lebda said with a grin. "He did it a lot. A lot."

One of Chelios' media mantras is he's happy to play whatever role the Wings want him to play. One of those roles is clearly to be a mentor to young defensemen.

"It's no secret," Chelios said. When Fish [Jiri Fischer] got here, I was his partner, then [Maxim] Kuznetsov. Now it's Lebda. I know what they want me here for. It's a different role. The fact that the team has so much success during the regular season, it's hard to question that.

"I'm very content with whatever role they want me to play in. At my age, to be fortunate to be in the mix of things like I am, I'll do whatever I can to stay in the league and help the team win."

Most of what he does is teach by example.

The best way for young players to learn the game "is to watch and learn and listen, and they do that. That's half the battle. Some kids, you've got to let them go because that's the only way they learn. I remember having arguments with Larry Robinson, him trying to tell me what to do," Chelios said.

But the truth of the matter is, Chelios isn't really content being the Wings' Crash Davis.

"Well, I'm not a thinker, that's for sure," Chelios joked. "I usually react, so that probably helps these guys. I try and keep it simple, so that makes it easier on these guys, too"

To hear Wings coach Mike Babcock tell the story, Chelios didn't "accept" a less prominent role. Not really.

When Babcock arrived after the lockout and Chelios decided he was going to come back to the Wings, the coach told him he was going to play sixth-man minutes.

"He said, no, he's going to be the fourth D-man. Then everyone got hurt. So he was the fourth D-man," Babcock recalled. "We met with him last spring at the end of the season and we said he was going to be six or seven, and he said, 'No, I'm going to be four.' We said, 'Well, Cheli, you're ready to be six or seven and you're not going to play all the games.' He said, 'No, I'm going to play all the games and I'm going to be four.'

Chris Chelios
Getty ImagesChris Chelios, center, started his NHL career in Montreal during the 1983-84 season.

"I said, 'Good. At least we cleared that right up,'" Babcock added with a grin.

He is, to put it mildly, a bit of a handful, on and off the ice.

"It's safe to say he's a hard-headed, stubborn guy -- in a good way," Devellano said.

Babcock, who is 15 months Chelios' junior, understands he has a valuable resource, but it's a resource that has to be earned and not taken for granted.

"This is what I'll tell you about Chris Chelios. His hunger to win and his hunger to compete is phenomenal. Cheli will do anything you want as long as it leads to winning," Babcock said.

He credits Chelios and other veterans such as Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, both now gone, with making him a better coach.

"What I mean by that is that they've got some ideas and they deserve the right to be heard," Babcock said. "They help you become a better coach. They see things differently sometimes than you do. You'd better know what you're talking about when you're talking to them. And if you think they're in just because you're the coach, they're not. They're in if you're right and they're in if they believe it's going to work."

In the end, Chelios has what he wanted: more ice time, more responsibility.

When longtime friend and teammate Mathieu Schneider went down with a broken wrist in Game 5 of the second round, Chelios found himself playing six or seven more minutes a night. He found himself on the power play. In the series-clinching sixth game against San Jose, Chelios chipped in two first-period assists as the Wings shut out the Sharks on the road. He logged 26:15 in ice time. In Game 2 of the Western Conference finals, he played 26:46 in a losing effort.

"You don't win the Norris [Trophies] he has, you don't have the points he has, without great instincts," Babcock said. "Who led Vancouver in the playoffs in scoring? Trevor Linden did. The playoffs are like the fountain of youth. If you think they're jacked up in exhibition, if you think they're jacked up for Game 65, they're not. They might be borderline asleep.

"But they're jacked up now and they're competitive people. The reason they've been so good is they're so competitive and their instincts when the game is on the line are as good as anyone."

Any questions left?

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com