Chelios back where it started

Matthew Gourlie
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Hall of Famer returns to Moose Jaw

The Hockey Hall of Fame is a long way from the beach at La Jolla Shores.

Saturday Chris Chelios returned to Moose Jaw where the journey towards his 26-year NHL career began. Chelios was honoured as part of a celebration of the 90th anniversary of the birth of the Moose Jaw Canucks, the junior team for which he played.

Chelios will be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 11, but he thought he was out of the game while still in his teens until a fateful day at the beach in 1979.

Chelios had just been cut by the United States International University in San Diego — a team that was preparing for its first season of NCAA hockey. At the camp, he met former Canuck Bob Parker.

“Bobby Parker had come down there and made the team and I hadn’t,” said Chelios. “So I was just going to school. The team was training on the beach one day. I was out of hockey. I was playing senior hockey in the beer and pizza league. Bobby asked me where I was playing and I told him I was done and just going to school and working. He gave me the Canuck coach’s phone number.”

The Canucks coach, Larry Billows, didn’t immediately jump at the chance to add an unknown kid from California to his SJHL roster.

“I called and they said they wouldn’t fly me up because I had to pay and I didn’t have the money. Five or six days later Larry flew me up and the rest is history,” said Chelios. “Thank god Larry Billows gave me a shot. I think I was the only American in the league at the time. There were a couple of bad breaks for some other player and I got an opportunity. Thank god for Larry Billows, Bobby Parker and the Canucks.”

Ironically Parker became homesick, came back and ended up being Chelios’ defence partner for most of his two seasons in Moose Jaw.

Chelios was born in Chicago, but the family moved to San Diego at the age of 15 where his father Gus opened a restaurant. When Chelios played his high school hockey in Chicago he weighed 130 pounds. He wasn’t much bigger when he was cut from three junior teams in Ontario.

“I went to Hawkesbury, Chatham, somewhere else in Windsor and then a bus right back to San Diego. It didn’t work out too well for me the first time so that was basically what I expected when I came up to Moose Jaw,” said Chelios.

His sole ambition was just to find somewhere to keep playing.

“I came to Moose Jaw just because I loved playing. For me Moose Jaw was pro. It was my first time being away from home and playing in front of big crowds. For me two or three thousand fans was huge. It was a great experience my two years here,” he said. “This was the most competitive hockey that I had played. It was tough that first year, especially switching from forward to defence the year I got out here. I was lucky. I had the chance to develop. I was still growing. (Billows) was patient with me. I made my fair share of mistakes, but he kept throwing me out there. Eventually the good out-weighed the bad.”

He played two seasons with the Canucks — they lost the SJHL title to Terry Simpson’s Prince Albert Raiders both years — before moving on to the University of Wisconsin.

The Montreal Canadiens drafted him 40th overall after his final season in Moose Jaw.

He tallied 49 points in 43 games in this first year with the Badgers and two years later he was on the American team at the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics and finished the season with the Canadiens as they went on a surprising run to the Wales Conference final.

“When you grow up in the States you have to be realistic. Getting to Moose Jaw, the NHL or pro was the furthest thing from my mind. Going to college was a goal. Once I accomplished that — and then after the way things went in my first year in Wisconsin — then it became a reality that I had a shot,” said Chelios.

He played 1,651 NHL games — fifth all-time — won three Stanley Cups and a World Cup of Hockey. He also played in four Olympics, won three Norris Trophies and appeared in 11 all-star games. It is a staggering resume that adds up to one of the most unlikely great careers in sports.

“My hero was Dick Butkus,” he said of the Chicago Bears middle linebacker. “For a guy who had no business making it at all, what ended up happening is almost comical.”

Chelios admits that he is nervous about his induction speech, but he is looking forward to the chance to pay tribute to everyone who had a hand in his career. “I’ve had a lot of help,” he said.

Saturday was a chance for the Warriors to pay tribute to the team who came before them. The Canucks began in 1934 and played in a number of leagues — they won the 1967 Western Canada Junior Hockey League title and lost the Memorial Cup final in 1945 and 1947 — until the Warriors arrived in 1984. The Warriors wore Chelios Hockey Hall of Fame jerseys in the pre-game warm-up and Canuck throwback jerseys during their 2-1 win over the Vancouver Giants.

After introducing nearly 50 former members of the Canucks, Chelios came out to a standing ovation. Chicago Blackhawk draft pick Travis Brown presented Chelios with a Warriors jersey with his name and a No. 24 on the back.

“I have great memories here. This is where it all started for me, so it’s great to be back,” said Chelios who had lunch with Parker and some other former teammates. “I came out of the hotel today and Terry Tattam — who was one of the players I lived with — he was waiting out there for me in his bright red Corvette. He hasn’t changed a bit, other than the gray hair. It’s so nice to see the guys. It’s amazing how fast the time goes. It doesn’t seem like 30-plus years.”

Chelios’ career seemed like it might never end until he finally retired at 48.

He listed four reasons for his longevity and success: Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour, Chris Osgoode and Dominik Hasek. Beyond having great goaltending behind him he said he also had great coaching from Jacques Lemaire, Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan.

Chelios played seven seasons in Montreal, nine in Chicago and parts of 10 in Detroit before finishing his career in Atlanta in 2009-10.

He said he was fortunate to play so long in Detroit where he and his wife Tracee raised their family. They have four kids: Tara, Caley, who plays lacrosse at Northwestern, plus sons Dean and Jake who are both playing hockey at Michigan State.

“I always thought that when the end came it would be more physical than mental. I was in Atlanta at the end and to me it wasn’t worth being away from the family to play eight or nine minutes a game,” said Chelios who currently works for the Red Wings in an advisory role and will be part of Fox Sports 1’s Sochi Olympic coverage.

“I didn’t really enjoy that stint in Atlanta. When you’re young and you don’t have kids it’s no big deal, but when you get to my age enough was enough. I said I wanted go out with nothing left in the tank. I’m pretty sure I did because I ended up with no points in my last year.”



Organizations: Canucks, NHL, Hockey Hall of Fame Moose Jaw Canucks United States International University NCAA University of Wisconsin Montreal Canadiens Chicago Bears Western Canada Junior Hockey League Red Wings

Geographic location: California, Moose Jaw, San Diego Chicago Ontario Hawkesbury Windsor Atlanta Moose Jaw.He Sarajevo Wales Wisconsin Detroit Montreal Michigan State

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