Six Degrees of Chris Chelios
Detroit Red Wings defenseman and Chicago boy Chris Chelios celebrates his 46th birthday today. The leader among all active players in regular season NHL games played, Chelios is also the second oldest man ever to play in the league. Only a 52-year-old Gordie Howe played at a later age in the NHL than Chelios.
Chelios is seven games shy of becoming just the eighth man ever to play as many as 1,600 regular season games in the league, and with reasonably good health he could climb to sixth on the all-time list by season’s end. He is still averaging 17:13 a night and is plus-9 in 46 games with the Wings this season.
When the Caps were in Detroit last month, I had a chance for a quick chat with Chelios after the morning skate. Here’s how it went:
We don’t see you that often, but can you tell us how the Wings stay so consistent from year-to-year?
“We’ve got some pretty good depth. The transition from three or four years ago with the loss of veterans like [Steve] Yzerman, [Brett] Hull, [Brendan] Shanahan, they brought these younger kids along pretty well. They didn’t just throw them into the fire. Now you’re seeing players like [Henrik] Zetterberg and [Pavel] Datsyuk and even [Dan] Cleary getting an opportunity and really stepping up and taking advantage of that opportunity.
“[We’ve got] solid goaltending, that’s always a great start. With [Chris] Osgood — not that it is a surprise — he picked up where he left off last year. But to have him come out and play the way he has this year and then obviously Dom [Hasek] when he is on, there is nobody is better.
“We get a pretty good effort from everybody. We rarely get outshot, we don’t allow a lot of scoring chances and we play very well defensively because of our system.”
How important is it having guys like yourself and Nick [Lidstrom] and Brian Rafalski to help bring along young defenseman like [Niklas] Kronvall and [Brett] Lebda?
“Yeah, and there are other kids like [Derek] Meech and [Kyle] Quincey that have also had the opportunity once in a while. Like I said, it’s tough when you get thrown into the fire. These kids, as much as they want to play, we’ve had the luxury at least to this point of the season of having that 10-point gap being in first place of giving these guys an opportunity to play but also not to put too much of a burden on them. There is not a lot of pressure on the young kids. I learned from watching the veterans and hopefully that experience will help them along and when they do get their opportunity to play a regular shift they’re going to be ready.”
They say that defense is one of the hardest positions to play at this level. At what stage in your career or how many games into your career did you feel like you really felt confident and felt like you had it under control defensively on the ice?
“I think up until five or six years ago I was still improving defensively. Really, that’s my role now with the Red Wings. Before, if you always had the puck and you were on offense, you didn’t have to worry about playing defense. That was always a good way to solve the defensive problems. But with the new rules, obviously it’s not an advantage to defensemen. The forwards are allowed to get in on the forecheck on you a lot quicker and you’re getting hit a lot more because of that. The battles in front of the net, it’s more of a position/zone type of game you have to play, and if you don’t figure it out, you’re going to be in trouble.
“I’m still learning now with the new rules, too, and it’s an adjustment. It’s tough for every defenseman.”
When you were a kid coming into the league, who was the one guy who helped you out the most?
“Rick Green and Craig Ludwig. Craig Ludwig was my partner. But Rick Green had a simple philosophy of the game. He made it sound kind of dumb almost. He’d say, ‘I’ve never seen a puck come out of the corner by itself.’ Little things like that. And when we were up 5-1 he’d also say, ‘We never needed that sixth goal,’
“Rick Green was really a good mentor and a teacher of being more patient and knowing when to have to maybe go out and trying to do something a little extra, but at the same time trying to be more efficient.”
Chelios has had three “minus” seasons in his 24 years in the league and is plus-349 for his career.
Finally, you can trace Chelios’ NHL lineage through a “six degrees of separation” series of Hall of Fame Canadiens defensemen that go back nearly 70 years.
When Chelios broke in with the Canadiens in 1983-84, Larry Robinson was the elder statesmen on the Montreal blueline. In Robinson’s rookie season of 1972-73, it was Jacques Laperriere. When Laperriere debuted with the Habs in 1962-63, Montreal still had veteran Tom Johnson on its defense corps. During Johnson’s rookie season of 1950-51, Doug Harvey was a stalwart on the Montreal blueline. In Harvey’s rookie season of 1947-48, the Canadiens had Ken Reardon among their rearguards. Reardon broke into the NHL in 1940-41.
Reardon, Harvey, Johnson, Laperriere, Robinson and Chelios combined for 13 Norris Trophies, 11 of them for the Canadiens. (Two of Chelios’s three Norris Trophies came while he was with the Blackhawks.) The six defensemen have also combined for 27 Stanley Cup rings, with Chelios’s 2002 title with the Wings standing alone as the one outside the Canadiens organization.
Chelios is now passing along that lineage and knowledge to a handful of young Detroit defensemen, and who knows? Maybe 15 years from now one of them will in turn be passing the torch to another young stud blueliner. It finally worked its way outside the Canadiens’ system, but it took about 50 years for it to happen.