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True competitor Chelios now a Hall of Famer

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  • Chris Chelios, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, was a Blackhawks defenseman for 8 seasons.

      Chris Chelios, a first-ballot Hall of Famer, was a Blackhawks defenseman for 8 seasons.
    Associated Press/April 1996

 
 

This might rub some people the wrong way, but I'm going to say it anyway: Chris Chelios is among my most favorite Blackhawks ever.

He was a reporter's dream to cover -- brutally honest, almost to a fault.

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"Write whatever you want and I'll say I said it," Chelios often said.

Smart, quick, skilled with an underrated shot, mean, dirty (in a good way) and a leader, Chelios was all of those.

And now he's in the Hockey Hall of Fame, a first-ballot selection Tuesday going in with Scott Niedermayer and Brendan Shanahan.

"He is the best American-born player ever," said Hawks and NBC broadcaster Eddie Olczyk. "He played in every era and played any way he wanted. He was skilled, tough and dirty. That was Cheli. He's a winner."

Chelios spent 8 seasons in Chicago and was the best defenseman in the game for most of that time, winning two Norris trophies and getting named to the first or second all-star team five times.

He didn't leave town on the best of terms with the fans in 1999, traded to Detroit after vowing never to play for the Red Wings, but Chelios was a competitor and he was shrewd.

He could see what was happening all around him and, being the competitor he was, wanted no part of the massive rebuild he saw coming.

Not even Chelios could have predicted how bad it got around here. He was long gone by the time Alpo Suhonen was named head coach by former general manager Mike Smith in 2000-01, the low point in one of the darkest eras in Hawks history.

The Hawks finished with 59 points and were dead last in the Central Division in 2003-04.

Remember, this was a franchise run by the late Bill Wirtz that ESPN the Magazine twice named the worst in all of pro sports. That's about as bad as it gets, folks.

None of us know what we would have done if we were Chelios and in a similar position.

Chelios was home alone Tuesday packing for Red Wings prospects camp in Traverse City, Mich., when the Hockey Hall of Fame called.

"Everyone's either at hockey or lacrosse camps," said Chelios, whose son Jake is attending the Hawks' prospect camp this week. "Prior to the call, I didn't answer a few times because my cell doesn't work in the house.

"Prior to that I was getting calls from friends. I was getting nervous. Until it happens the word surreal comes to mind. It's been a great day."

Too great to mention the name of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, with whom Chelios had more than a few run-ins during his career.

"Let's not mention that name on this call," Chelios said during a conference call with reporters. "This is a good day."

Chelios, a native of Evergreen Park, won three Stanley Cups (two with Detroit) and three Norris trophies in his 26-year career that started in Montreal and continued in Chicago after then-GM Mike Keenan traded Denis Savard to get the defenseman.

"I always said I'd go until the tank was empty, and I think I did," said Chelios, who was 48 when he finally retired.

Chelios and Niedermayer were inducted in their first years of eligibility. This was the second year of eligibility for Shanahan.

Also going in are Geraldine Heaney, who won gold with Canada's women's team in the 2002 Winter Olympics, and Fred Shero, who led the Flyers to two Stanley Cups in the 1970s.

"I can say that there's not another guy that comes to mind you consider going into a tough situation with that you want to have looking out for you and on your side," Shanahan said of Chelios.

"It absolutely makes it more special going in with people that I not only played against, but also played with and got to know well."

Even though he still works for the Red Wings, Chelios still considers himself a Chicagoan.

"I'm always going to say I'm from Chicago, and I'm proud of that fact," he said. "This is a great honor, one of the highest honors any athlete can receive."

tsassone@dailyherald.com

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