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Blackhawks Beat: What made Chris Chelios so great?

Jay Zawaski Avatar
February 22, 2024

Hey there, Hawks fans!

Welcome to my weekly, Diehards only, Blackhawks Beat newsletter. We here at CHGO appreciate your Diehard-ness and want to thank you for helping us deliver great, ad-free content every week from every beat. Be sure to check out Greg Boysen and Mario Tirabassi’s weekly Rebuild Report, which is another Diehard Exclusive.

As Chris Chelios’ jersey retirement ceremony approaches, I find myself reflecting on what a great player he was in Chicago. I also think of how many of my formative hockey memories he’s part of. Upon further reflection, I realized how long ago it was that Chelios played in Chicago, and frankly, how old I’m getting. Only one member of the current Blackhawks, Nick Foligno, played against Chelios. There are 10 current Blackhawks who weren’t even alive for Chelios’ time in Chicago, so I can only assume there’s a massive portion of our CHGO Diehards that have never seen Chelios play as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks, or maybe even as part of the Detroit Red Wings (or Atlanta Thrashers).

With that in mind, I wanted to give our younger fans an idea of just what kind of player Chelios was, and why his jersey retirement is such a no-brainer.

Chelios played nine seasons in Chicago, spanning the years 1990-1999. He played parts of 27 seasons in the NHL, starting in Montreal, then to Chicago, over to Detroit, then finally a seven-game stint with the now defunct Atlanta Thrashers. He is a three-time Norris Trophy winner, twice as a member of the Blackhawks. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in penalty minutes (1,495). He served as Blackhawks captain for four seasons. He led the team in scoring for the 1995-96 season, and was one of the best all-around players to ever patrol the blue line. He is second all-time in games played for a defenseman. He is the NHL’s all-time leader in playoff games played (266). He is a Hockey Hall of Famer. He was a member of the NHL’s Top 100 All-Time team.

Chelios was simultaneously a top shut-down defender and a top offensive puck mover and scorer. He was physical as hell, but also played with a finesse and poise, and knew when to use which skill when. He could bounce between the two styles seamlessly. He was an absolute warrior. His home city of Chicago loved him. He was everything a Blackhawk was supposed to be, which is why his departure was so painful.

On March 23, 1999, the unthinkable happened. The Blackhawks traded Chelios to the hated Detroit Red Wings. The organization felt that, at 37 years old, it was time to punt on their captain. He went on to play until he was 48. In return for Chelios, the Blackhawks received defenseman Anders Eriksson and two first-round picks that turned into defenseman Steve McCarthy and goaltender Adam Munro. So … yeah … a whole lot of nothing. Meanwhile, Detroit received 10 seasons of Chris Chelios. During that span, the Red Wings won two Stanley Cups and Chelios was the 2001-02 Norris Trophy runner-up to his teammate, Niklas Lidstrom.

I can list off all the stats and info in the world, but I’m here to tell you, Chris Chelios was the greatest Blackhawks defenseman of all-time until Duncan Keith came around, and I still think you could have the conversation about which of the two legends was the better individual player. That’s how good Chelios was.

But don’t take my word for it. I spoke to the only current Blackhawk to ever play against Chelios, Nick Foligno, and former Hawk and current radio analyst Troy Murray, who played with and against Chelios. Blackhawks head coach Luke Richardson added his thoughts later in the week, as well.

Foligno, who played against Chelios at the very end of his career in Atlanta, was a guest on CHGO Blackhawks on Tuesday and shared some thoughts.

“I think he was on his way out…he was cruising at that point,” Foligno said. “I remember him being super tan. He’s a legend. It was actually really cool for me [to play against him]. He had a moment where he was like, ‘I remember playing against your dad.’ I was like, ‘Yeah…I remember watching you. I kind of hated you.'”

A lot of people felt that way about Chelios.

I asked Murray what it was like to play against Chelios.

“Miserable prick,” Murray joked. “He was mean, he was nasty. He was like a small Chris Pronger. He was always doing something and everybody hated him when he was out there on the ice because he competed so hard. Never back down from anything. He was as dirty and competitive of a player as I’ve ever played against.”

Chelios was a miserable opponent to play against, and a perfect teammate to play with.

I asked Murray what made him so special.

“The passion of the game that he had. He loved the game. He just wanted to play. It was always one of his dreams to play an entire game. He wanted to play 60 minutes. He just loved being out there. He was a freak of nature as far as his ability to never get tired. He worked hard at it, but he loved the game. That really resonated. Some players play the game and they don’t enjoy it. He enjoyed the game.”

Chelios’ work ethic is what made him such a special player. His preparation was legendary.

“He would take a bike and put in the sauna,” Murray recalled. “He would sit in there and he would ride. He was kind of ahead of the whole fitness regime that everybody is doing now. That’s why he stayed in such great shape. He was really dedicated. He had a lot of fun playing the game, but also took it very seriously and made sure that he was putting himself in the best situation to succeed.”

After Friday’s morning skate, Richardson was asked about Chelios. He didn’t hesitate to offer his thoughts.

“I didn’t like playing against him,” Richardson said. “He was a hard competitor and a great teammate and captain.”

When asked what made Chelios so special, Richardson also talked about his desire. “He’s just got drive. Obviously, great talent. He was one of the first guys you heard about doing the off-ice training in the summer. He was able to play lots of minutes, and lots of minutes under stress…in the playoffs, World Cups, and Olympics. He doesn’t make mistakes because he’s used to being tired…or playing through tiredness because he’s not tired compared to everybody else. That was a unique drive that he had internally.”

Richardson continued, pointing out Chelios’ influence on today’s defensemen. “He was a guy that was up and down the ice quite a bit because he could handle that workload. Guys coming into the league after, like you see now with Quinn Hughes… he was probably one of the first guys, after Bobby Orr for sure, that was a real competitor on the back-end [and] not a liability defensively…always adding in the offense.”

Hopefully, hearing if from some of his old teammates and opponents will show younger Hawks fans how important Chelios was to the Blackhawks and to Chicago. There was a lot of angry reaction when the decision to retire number 7 was announced, and it wasn’t for Brent Seabrook. Seabrook will assuredly get his day and a banner of his own, but it is appropriate to honor Chelios first. At worst, Chelios is the third-best Blackhawks defenseman of all-time. I rank him at number two, just a tick below Keith and ahead of Pierre Pilote. He was an all-time great. If you don’t believe me, plug in your old Sega Genesis and play some games of NHL 94 as the Blackhawks this weekend.

The Week Ahead

Friday – Winnipeg Jets

When we last saw the Winnipeg Jets back on January 11th, they were “flying high” and dominating the Central Division. Since then, they’ve fallen back to earth a bit. They’re currently third in the Central, three points behind Dallas and one point behind Colorado, but with three games-in-hand on both. Despite their recent 4-5-1 “slump” the Jets are still poised to make a run at the Stanley Cup. They’re deep, big, fast and have one of the best goaltenders in the world in Connor Hellebuyck.

The Jets are 8-2 vs Chicago over their last 10 matchups. So … yeah.

Sunday – Detroit Red Wings

After the confetti has settled at the conclusion of Chris Chelios’ jersey retirement ceremony, there will be a game to play, and it’s one of the most anticipated of the season. Patrick Kane, who signed a one-year deal with the Red Wings back in December, is making his return to the United Center. If you haven’t been keeping up, Kane looks like his old self. His hip resurfacing surgery was a success, and Kane looks like the Kane of old again. He has 23 points in 24 games with the Red Wings this season, and he just picked up his 800th career assist the other night.

Connor Bedard, who grew up idolizing Kane, is looking forward to the game. “I’m just pumped for the video tribute. I think it’s going to be pretty nasty. He had some sick highlights. I watched every one of his mix tapes a hundred times.”

No. 88 will make his mark in this game. Whatever the Kane-themed wager is, take the over.

We’re looking forward to seeing many of you at our sold-out CHGO Blackhawks Takeover on Sunday afternoon. It’s sure to be a memorable day and I’m looking forward to it.

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