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GOULD: Welcome to the Hockey Hall of Fame, Chris Chelios

Chris Chelios

Chris Chelios

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Updated: December 11, 2013 6:28AM



It was a blockbuster trade. On June 29, 1990, the Blackhawks dealt center Denis Savard, one of their all-time greats, to the Montreal Canadiens for defenseman Chris Chelios.

Even those of us who loved Savvy knew it was a great deal for the Hawks. One year removed from the Norris Trophy, Chelios, a native of the South Side, had been brought home to ‘‘change the culture,’’ as coach Mike Keenan put it. And change it Chelios did, anchoring the Hawks’ surge to the best record in the NHL in 1991 and to the Stanley Cup Final in 1992.

Shortly after the trade, I flew to Montreal to interview the newest Hawk. While we stood around in his kitchen, Cheli held his son, Dean. Suddenly, the toddler reached out and smacked my notebook and tape recorder out of my hands.

The acorn didn’t fall far from the tree.

One of the most improbable journeys to the Hockey Hall of Fame — from the South Side of Chicago to San Diego, Moose Jaw, Montreal and Detroit — will culminate when Chelios takes a well-deserved place among hockey’s best Monday in Toronto.

Now, it’s a no-brainer. Chelios, who played until he was 48 — only Gordie Howe played longer — appeared in more NHL regular-season games (1,651) than any other defenseman and more playoff games (266) than any other NHL player. He’s in the discussion as the greatest U.S.-born hockey player.

When he was pondering his future in San Diego after failing to make the U.S. International University team, though, it was far from obvious.

Bumping into a guy on the beach who had made the U.S. International team but had decided to pursue his hockey dream with a low-level junior team in Moose Jaw, Chelios went along and wound up being discovered by Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson.

When he first called Chelios, Johnson once told me, he asked him if he had a job or was going to school. In essence, what was he doing with his spare time?

Neither, Chelios said.

‘‘So what do you all day?’’ Badger Bob said.

‘‘I’m working on my stick,’’ Chelios said.

‘‘Must be a hell of a stick,’’ Johnson said, recalling the exchange with a smile.

The truth is, it’s not easy to define Chelios’ game.

He did everything pretty well. But his greatest assets might have been his knack for doing just what was needed when it was needed — and his intensity for winning. When it mattered most, his shot was a little harder, his passes a little crisper, his stride a little faster, his checks a little firmer. But most of all, he played the game with an edge. A chippy edge.

For example, he had a long-running feud with Brian Propp that started when he was with the Canadiens and Propp was with the Philadelphia Flyers. One night in Chicago, it spilled over. After the game, Propp, finishing up with the Hartford Whalers, said some nasty stuff about Chelios.

The next night, Chelios, suspended and sitting on press row with us in Winnipeg, came over and said, ‘‘Herb, can you put something in the paper for me?’’

‘‘Of course,’’ I said. ‘‘What have you got?’’

He proceeded to offer up a bunch of comments about Propp that, if printed, would have gotten me suspended, too.

Shrugging, he started to walk away, saying: ‘‘Tell Propp I’ll meet him on West Madison Street any time. And tell him not to bring his shield.’’

Bingo.

Chicago fans were understandably upset when Chelios traded in his Indianhead for the despised winged wheel. In hindsight, it’s a shame the Hawks weren’t able to build around him, Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour. But that’s complicated. Those were the dark ages for Hawks management.

In Detroit, Chelios added two more Stanley Cups to the one he had won in Montreal. His other hardware includes three Norris Trophies and an NCAA title, plus many Olympic and Canada Cup successes.

All in all, pretty amazing for a guy born on the South Side at a time when U.S. players in the NHL were rare.

Enjoy your coronation, Cheli. You’ve earned it.



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