Prior to March 23, 1999, Chris Chelios was an idiot.December 24, 2016
Though he had long been established as one of the NHL's best defensemen, was absolutely adored by fans of each city he played in (to that point Montreal and Chicago), and was perhaps one of the most blatant "team first" guys around, I hated the guy.
First, he was a Chicago Blackhawk.
Though, in the late 90's, being a Detroit Red Wings fan meant you had literally nothing to complain about, any loss to the hated Blackhawks was intolerable. Though Chicago wasn't exactly the hockey hot-bed it is now, the decades-long rivalry between the Motor City and the Second City still fueled an admirable amount of hatred between the two fanbases.
However, if I had to estimate, I'd say Chris Chelios alone was responsible for 90 percent of that hatred.
Off the ice he'd proudly state how much he hated Detroit.
On the ice he'd take cheap shots, sucker punch players in the corners, trash talk every time he passed the bench, and then complain to the referees if opposing players did the same thing to one of his guys.
The guy was an idiot.
He was also a brilliant player.
Though he was hardly a big man (6'0", 190 lbs), he was almost impossible to beat one on one. He not only had a deceptively powerful shot, but always seemed to know when to use it. He saw the ice better than most of his opponents and routinely made his teammates better than they actually were.
Best of all, or worst of all depending your perspective, he knew he played the game on the edge, he knew he pissed people off, and he knew he was going to be the most hated man on ice outside of his home arena, and he loved it.
There was a time when I was convinced that, if Chris Chelios suddenly died, a little piece of me would jump for joy as certainly, he had it coming.
All of that changed in late March 1999.
Looking to secure their third straight Stanley Cup championship, the Detroit Red Wings brought in Chris Chelios and Wendel Clark at the 1999 trade deadline.
Now, it wasn't just that the once-hated Chelios was now one of our guys that made the move easy to accept, but that Chris Chelios, the man who said he'd never, ever go to Detroit, waived his no-trade clause to do just that.
It appeared as if, like Darth Vader before him, Chelios realized there actually was some good in him, and decided to join the good side of The Force housed within Joe Louis Arena.
At the time, Chris Chelios was 37, rather long in the tooth for an NHL player, but still a frighteningly effective defenseman.
Adding him and Clark to the lineup in 1999 really sent a message to the fanbase that the Wings weren't ready to surrender the Cup just yet. With all the talent already on the roster, it seemed as if a three-peat was all but certain.
Unfortunately, all that hope died in the second round that year at the hands of another hated Detroit nemesis, the Colorado Avalanche.
Over the summer, it was clear Wendel Clark wasn't going to stick around in Detroit, but Chelios was going to be back for the 2000 season.
At 38, it wasn't clear how much he'd contribute to another Cup run, but the hope was that he'd do enough to earn his top-four status on Detroit's blue-line.
No one thought that "enough" would translate into 34 points in 81 games and a gaudy plus-48 rating, but that's just what Chelios posted in the 1999-00 season.
The man who was once the bane of every Detroit fans' existence had become one of the most popular players in red and white, if only because he acknowledged how much he was loathed before.
In fact, once in Detroit, Fox Sports Detroit's play-by-play man Ken Daniels asked Chelios what he liked best about playing for the Wings, to which Chelios replied, "I don't have to play like an idiot anymore."
Though he toned down his nastiness considerably once in Detroit, he was still known to throw the odd elbow or kidney punch just when the refs turned their heads.
Chelios gave the Wings what they needed: a solid, responsible, tough defender the team could count on.
Sure, he still could score, fight, antagonize, and agitate with the best of them, but that's not what the team needed, so that's not what he gave them.
Regardless, his reputation preceded him in every barn the Wings visited, and like he once was in Detroit, Chelios hit the ice on most nights as the most hated man in the building.
If someone would have told me back in 1999 that Chris Chelios would not only stick around another couple of years in Detroit, but help them win a Cup in 2002 and again in 2008, I would've slapped them in the face because that's just what you do to a liar.
Even more unimaginable would have been the thought of Chelios announcing his retirement in August 2010.
But today, that's exactly what he's done.
I'd be lying if I said I thought Chelios was the classiest of players, or that his conduct on (and off) the ice could ever be confused as gentlemanly.
But I feel confident in saying that no one on Earth loves hockey more than Chris Chelios.
In the end, that's what will define Chelios' career.
I'll end this retrospective with a personal story that sums up who Chris Chelios was and is as a player and a man.
In 2000, my wife (then girlfriend) was on a business trip in Chicago.
Being a Red Wings fan, and by then a Chris Chelios fan, she wanted to make her way to Cheli's Chili Bar, a restaurant Chelios owned in Chicago at the time.
She called the place up only to find out that they were closed for the day.
The person on the other end of the line was actually Penny Chelios, Chris' sister. Penny told my wife that even though they were closed, she'd stick around for her to come by and take a look around.
My wife jumped in a cab and made her way down there, only to see Penny and her dog waiting for her.
The two ended up talking, all alone in the restaurant, for over an hour.
My wife heard about Chris getting beat up as a kid in Chicago, how his mother saved up the money to buy him his first pair of skates at Montgomery Ward, and how his entire family centered their lives around Chris' games as a kid.
She heard about how Chris, though no stranger to alcohol, had only one addiction, and that was hockey.
Penny told my wife that the only thing Chris loved more than hockey was family. Once he started making big money as an NHL player, he made sure his family was taken care of, and that attitude also extended to his fans.
My wife left with a signed puck (a No. 7 signature, by the way), a t-shirt, matchbooks, and upon Penny learning that she and I lived in California, a phone number for Chris' house in Malibu (which my wife promptly misplaced, something I still make sure to complain about to this day).
She was overwhelmed by the generosity and thanked Penny for her hospitality, to which she replied, "Well, Chris would have done the same thing if he had picked up the phone."
There's no doubt that many hockey fans will live the rest of their lives convinced that Chris Chelios was, is, and always will be an idiot.
If that's truly the case, then so be it.
But, for my part, he'll always be my idiot.
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