Rozner: Blackhawks' Kane might give Chelios run as USA best

  • Chris Chelios was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony in December 2011 in Chicago.

    Chris Chelios was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame during a ceremony in December 2011 in Chicago. Associated Press

  • Chris Chelios, here practicing at the United Center in May 1995, is the best American hockey player of all time, according to columnist Barry Rozner.

    Chris Chelios, here practicing at the United Center in May 1995, is the best American hockey player of all time, according to columnist Barry Rozner. Associated Press

 
 
Updated 11/22/2019 5:01 PM

You only have to know a little bit about hockey to know Chris Chelios is the greatest American hockey player of all time.

The case is overwhelming and not in dispute.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

But if Patrick Kane can stay healthy and continue to produce as he does today, there might someday have to be another conversation, albeit one many years down the road.

As with all historical sports conversations, understanding the difference in NHL eras is crucial, and the game in which Chelios played was quite violent, much different from today's ice ballet when most collisions are an accident.

An extraordinary two-way, puck-moving defenseman -- the most valuable asset there is in hockey -- Chelios played heavy minutes, the power play, the penalty kill and was pound for pound -- at 5-foot-11, 190 pounds -- the meanest, toughest player of his generation.

You didn't just go for a skate in those days, playing for the joy of it and looking for points without being touched. You got hammered when near the puck and Chelios dished out much more than he received.

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If you wanted to approach the net, or protect it, you paid a hefty price.

Chelios wasn't about numbers, but the numbers say all-time among defensemen he has the 10th-most points (948), 10th-most assists (763) and most penalty minutes (2,891).

He's 34th in playoff points among all scorers (144), and seventh among defensemen. He's the NHL's all-time leader in playoff games (266).

Chelios was captain of the Blackhawks, the alternate to Brian Leetch when the Americans upset heavily-favored Team Canada in the 1996 World Cup, 2004 World Cup captain and three times the U.S. captain in the Olympics.

He played in two World Juniors, four Olympics and five World/Canada Cups.

He won a Stanley Cup with Montreal at age 24 and two with Detroit at ages 40 and 46.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He was five times a first-team all-star and three times a Norris Trophy winner, named one of the NHL's 100 Greatest Players and inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2013.

He played in the postseason 24 times, an NHL record, missed the playoffs only once in his career (1998 Hawks) and tied with Gordie Howe for the most NHL seasons played (26).

Chris Chelios congratulates Joe Murphy after a goal in a 1996 game.
Chris Chelios congratulates Joe Murphy after a goal in a 1996 game. - Associated Press

A Duncan Keith-type freak, he was averaging more than 27 minutes a game when traded from Chicago to Detroit in 1999, and at age 40 in Detroit (2001-02) he averaged more than 25 minutes a game.

That same year when the Wings won the Cup he averaged 26:22 in the playoffs on a knee with no cartilage, leading the playoffs in plus-minus for the second time in his career (Chicago, 1992), while collecting a modest 44 penalty minutes in 23 games.

"I would have played more if they let me," Chelios told me with a laugh a few years ago at a speaking engagement. "But they wouldn't let me."

Chelios is fifth all-time among all skaters in games played (1,651), despite being a constant physical presence with a target on his back every night.

Whatever you needed done at the rink that night, whether it was beat someone up or beat them at either end of the rink, Chelios would do it.

He's one of the best players of all time, from any country, period.

There are others to remember among the American-born players, like two-way center Mike Modano, who has the most goals (561) and points (1,374) in 1,499 games over 20 years. He also had 58 goals and 146 points in 176 postseason games and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2014.

There's Leetch, the superb Rangers defenseman who won the Conn Smythe in leading the Rangers to their first Cup in 54 years in 1994 and was elected to the Hall in 2009. He collected 1,028 points in 1,205 games and is one of eight defensemen all-time with more than 1,000 points. He played for the Americans 11 times in international tournaments.

Somewhere in the Top 10 among American men are Pat LaFontaine (1,013 points in 865 games), Joey Mullen (502 goals, 1,063 points) -- he retired as the all-time USA leader in both -- and Jeremy Roenick (513 goals, 1,216 points). Neal Broten (923 points) hit the trifecta with Olympic gold, a Stanley Cup and an NCAA title.

Goalies Ryan Miller (381 wins), John Vanbiesbrouck (374), Jonathan Quick (315) and Mike Richter (301, '96 World Cup MVP) will also garner support.

No offense to Brett Hull and his 741 goals, but dual citizenship notwithstanding, he was born in Canada.

Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane has a ways to go before he surpasses Chris Chelios as the greatest American hockey player of all time.
Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane has a ways to go before he surpasses Chris Chelios as the greatest American hockey player of all time. - John Starks | Staff Photographer

Meanwhile, the 31-year-old Kane is putting together a strong resume with three Stanley Cups. He has Calder, Hart, Ross and Conn Smythe Trophies -- first American to win the Ross and Hart -- and his 967 points are already 95th all-time.

He will reach 1,000 points this year in fewer than 1,000 games and he's got a chance to chase down Modano in four or five years for the all-time American lead.

That would probably move him up to No. 2, and if he plays long enough there will be plenty of votes for him as No. 1, especially here in Chicago.

But Chelios played a different style in a different era and at a different position, a more important position, and he was as tough and talented a two-way defensemen -- this side of Bobby Orr -- as has ever played the game.

Fight about it if you like. Chelios would love that.

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