The unlikely Red Wing: When Chris Chelios came to Detroit

Defenseman Chris Chelios played ten seasons and won two Stanley Cup titles with the Detroit Red Wings.

Next March 23 marks the 14th anniversary of the trade that brought Chris Chelios to Detroit. In order to get the then 37-year old defensemen, the Wings gave up Anders Eriksson and two first-round draft picks. Eriksson, who was never popular in Detroit, bounced around the league for more than a decade, finally being invited to the New York Islanders’ training camp in September 2010; but he was released on October 4, 2010.

It wasn’t the most popular trade around Motown, at least not initially. Chelios was the Reggie Jackson of the NHL, the player fans loved to boo. Before the trade, when Cheli was a Blackhawk, Steve Yzerman delighted Wings fans by undressing Chelios in front of his home crowd, passing himself the puck between Cheli’s skates to the right of the goal, turning Chelios completely around, and scoring. That didn’t happen often during a 26-year NHL career.

What was surprising about the trade was that Chelios had, more than once, voiced his dislike of the Red Wings, stating they were overrated. Yet, the man who vowed that he’d never, ever go to Detroit, waived his no-trade clause to do just that. Maybe the lure of winning another Stanley Cup was just too great.

Chelios was brought to Detroit for his veteran leadership. But with his better playing days behind him, the trade rejuvenated Chelios. Or maybe it was the stationary bike it was rumored he rode in the sauna.

Three years later, his +40 plus/minus led the NHL, and he was named to the First All-Star Team. He also led the United States hockey team to a silver medal in the 2002 Winter Olympics, was named to the Tournament’s All-Star Team, and helped the Wings win their third Stanley Cup in five years, as the Wings defeated the Carolina Hurricanes four games to one. By now, at 41, Chelios had become a fan favorite in Detroit — where we love the underdog and cheer for the old man, even as fans around the league, especially in Chicago, where they felt he abandoned the Hawks, still loved to boo him.

On August 4, 2005, at age 43, Chelios signed a one-year contract with the Red Wings, and another one-year deal on May 24, 2006. When Yzerman retired on July 3, 2006, Chelios became the active leader for most games played. On April 21, 2007, he became the oldest defenseman to score a short-handed goal in the NHL, during a playoff game against the Calgary Flames.

Chelios re-signed with the Wings for the 2007-08 season. On January 8, 2008, he became the second oldest player in the history of the NHL, at 45 years, 348 days, passing Moe Roberts. Only Gordie Howe, who played until he was fifty-two, was older.

Chelios played in his 248th playoff game on April 12, 2008, breaking the NHL record set by Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy. Later that season, Chelios became the oldest active player to win the Stanley Cup, his second with the Wings.

Chelios signed another one-year contract with the Wings for the 2008-09 season. On December 5, he played in his first of two games for the Grand Rapids Griffins, and at the conclusion of the season, he was named a finalist for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, awarded annually to the NHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to the game of hockey.

On August 31, 2010, Chelios retired. The same day, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland announced that Chelios would be hired to work in the Red Wings’ front office as Adviser to Hockey Operations, working with Wings’ defensemen in Grand Rapids.

One can only wonder, when Chris Chelios is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, whether he’ll go in as a Montreal Canadien, a Chicago Blackhawk, or a Detroit Red Wing. Many Wings fans would love to see his jersey hoisted into the rafters of Joe Louis Arena.

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About J. Conrad Guest

J. Conrad Guest is the author of The Cobb Legacy, Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, and other novels. He resides in Northville. Visit him at www.jconradguest.com.