It’s showtime: Blackhawks get set to retire Chelios’ number, welcome back Kane

  Chicago Blackhawks center Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane, right, salute the fans in 2015 after winning the Stanley Cup Final Game 6 at the United Center in Chicago. John Starks/
Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane celebrate after defeating the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final in 2015. Kane will play his first game against the Hawks on Sunday when Detroit comes to town for a 5 p.m. game. Associated Press

When the Blackhawks retired Denis Savard's No. 18 on March 19, 1998, former teammate and current broadcaster Darren Pang knew he wanted to be in attendance.

He could have asked the organization for tickets, but he cracked out his credit card instead and purchased two seats about 10 rows behind the players' benches.

“It was such a great moment,” Pang said. “I've been through a few of them — retiring a legend's sweater — and there's really nothing like it.”

While Savard's night was special, it was nothing like what will transpire Sunday at the United Center.

First, the Hawks will retire Chris Chelios' No. 7 in a pregame ceremony that begins at 3:10 p.m.

Then the overflow crowd will welcome back the Detroit Red Wings' Patrick Kane as the superstar winger plays his first game against his former team. Puck drop will be slightly after 5 p.m.

The number of A-list celebrities expected to appear will make your jaw drop. Some — such as former Blackhawks Ed Belfour, Jeremy Roenick, Tony Amonte and Gary Suter — have been made public. They will join former broadcaster Pat Foley in the United Center atrium at 2:15 p.m. to talk about Chelios' career.

Other big names are expected as well. Don't be surprised if Jonathan Toews, Wayne Gretzky and a number of high-profile musicians are in the building. Chelios' network of friends is wide and vast, and they will want to show their support.

Either one of these events happening on their own would be enough to drive up ticket prices and pique the public's interest.

But both on the same night? Truly, it will be one to remember.

· · ·

Many modern-day fans and experts want to anoint Kane as the greatest American-born hockey player ever. And they can certainly make that case, with Kane likely to eventually hold the record for most points by a USA skater. His 1,263 points are 129 behind Mike Modano.

Others, however, argue Chelios is No. 1. They have a case as well.

Chelios skated in 1,651 regular-season games, 266 more in the postseason (that's more than three seasons worth of games), won three Stanley Cups, won the Norris Trophy for best defenseman three times, was a seven-time all-star and is in the Hall of Fame.

His point totals weren't extraordinary, surpassing 60 just seven times over 26 seasons, but the goals and assists weren't really what made him so special.

“He's a Netflix documentary,” said Pang, who does rank Chelios ahead of Kane. “The story of him moving to San Diego and being cut by a San Diego college team (United States International University). He couldn't make that team. He sold his motorcycle for $185 to get a plane ticket to go out west to Moose Jaw and made that Junior B team.”

(A quick aside: He was cut by two Junior B teams in Canada before making Moose Jaw.)

OK, back to Pang: “Then in the next two years he ends up getting a scholarship (to Wisconsin) and being drafted and playing in the Olympics. All of that in such a short amount of time is absolutely remarkable.

“It's incredible when you think of the all-encompassing adventure to play 26 years in the NHL — and he didn't just play. He was a factor every season. His main fingerprints were all over them.”

Two things always amazed Pang about Chelios.

“Every time he went in the corner, he came out with the puck,” Pang said with a chuckle. “I don't care how long you're playing the game — that to me is the bottom line. …

“He was also the best penalty killer who ever played. That's hockey sense and defending. He was always a little bit ahead of the game. He was gifted at reading plays — and then being aggressive to get to them.”

Other things that made Chelios special?

He could play lefty as well as he could righty. Troy Murray, who played with and against Chelios, said that before practice the Hawks would throw two pucks on the ice and players would use opposite-handed sticks.

Chelios went out with a flat blade “and you couldn't get the puck away from him,” Murray said.

“The only other guy in the NHL that did that — could switch hands and play on both sides — Gordie Howe,” said John Wiedeman, Murray's WGN 720-AM radio partner.

Chelios would also drive around during the summer with equipment in his trunk, often joining men's-leagues games.

“People would say, 'Gee, that guy looks like Chris Chelios,'” Murray said.

And it was.

Finally, Murray is adamant that the No. 1 thing that separated Chelios from everyone else was his insatiable desire to come out on top.

“If it was his best friend, he would break his arm if that's what it took to win,” Murray said. “He was as nasty and as competitive as any player in the history of the game.”

Did it cross the line at times?

“Oh, a lot of people would say that he did cross the line, but he had no problem with that,” Murray said. “Today's generation of fan is not going to understand how the game was played back in his day. There was Bob Probert and that kind of toughness, but as far as toughness when it comes to being a hockey player? Nobody like him. Nobody like him.”

· · ·

Kane, who underwent off-season hip surgery, signed with Detroit in late November in large part to rejoin former Hawks teammate Alex DeBrincat. Things didn't mesh right away, but Detroit is 5-2-0 since Kane returned from a lower-body injury on Feb. 10. He is riding a seven-game point streak and has 11 goals and 15 assists in 26 games.

Needless to say, he hasn't missed a beat.

“It's going to be a meaningful game and he's going to want to put on a show,” Murray said. “So the Hawks better be ready because he's still Patrick Kane.”

Murray and Kane formed a tight bond over the years, a fact perhaps not that well known outside the inner circles of the team. While often quiet behind the scenes, Murray said that once you get Kane talking — especially about hockey — he'll go and go and go.

“He's a very reserved kind of guy,” Murray said. “He didn't say a lot. But when you got him into a conversation, he was very engaging and very thoughtful.

“He's a student of the game for all eras. He knew all about Denis Savard and they had a great relationship. Two high draft picks and two young players coming in at 18, and Savvy was his coach. … He knew the great players, he knew the history of the organization. I think that speaks a lot about his character and the willingness to learn about the past.”

The other thing that stuck out was his work ethic. Kane was always one of the last players to leave the ice after practice. He'd do stickhandling drills, fire one-timers and loved competing in Two Puck, an elimination game where forwards and D-men went 1-on-1 with the goalie.

“People don't know the hours he put in — the little things he did to sharpen his game to keep it at the top,” Wiedeman said. “It seemed like whenever he would fail to do what he hoped to do, he'd get a little nasty (and) upset. Instead of taking it out on anybody, he'd go analyze what was wrong and then work at it.”

· · ·

So you want to be like Pang and sit close to the action for this double whammy of an event? It'll cost about $750 per seat. OK with nosebleeds? That'll still be $175 or more.

“It's going to be an amazing night,” Murray said. “Patrick Kane coming back is going to be really special. I know the way he is and he'll downplay it. But it's going to be very emotional because there is that side to him that he doesn't show very often.”

Pang won't have to buy a ticket this time. As a matter of fact, he might have the best seat in the house — between the teams' benches for the ceremony and the game.

“I'm really excited for it,” he said. “The game's the game, but (the ceremony) is bigger in my opinion.

“I think the time is right for Cheli. It's important for guys like Connor (Bedard) and the younger players like Kevin Korchinski to witness something so special. I mean he's the greatest American-born player — for me — in the history of hockey.”

Article Comments
Guidelines: Keep it civil and on topic; no profanity, vulgarity, slurs or personal attacks. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked. If a comment violates these standards or our terms of service, click the "flag" link in the lower-right corner of the comment box. To find our more, read our FAQ.