The story of Chris Chelios
CHICAGO -- There's a neighborhood bar in Chicago, at the corner of Lincoln and Armitage, called Stanley's Kitchen and Tap.
It's a neighborhood bar in the truest sense of the word. A sign next to the exit reads "Respect Our Neighbors, Please Leave Quietly."
It's filled with character. Inside, every inch of every wall is covered with 20 years' worth of hand-written messages.
"I guarantee you his name is on these walls somewhere," said one bartender, while she pulled on a nearby tap, filling a beer.
This is Chris Chelios' hangout, his other Chicago home for more than 20 years. It's early Sunday afternoon and it's filled with the aroma of fried chicken and waffles mixed with scrambled eggs, biscuits and gravy. It's wonderful. It opened its doors at 10 a.m. for Sunday brunch; 20 minutes later you couldn't get a table.
Donnie Kruse is one of the owners and Chelios' good friend. You know he's a good friend because he immediately gets suspicious when a visitor starts asking lots of questions about Chelios. He asks for ID or a business card, anything that proves the questioner isn't some deranged fan or stalker.
When he feels it's safe to talk, he calls over Art Moher, a manager and bartender at Stanley's to share in the Chelios storytelling.
Moher is a man's bartender. He gives an approving nod when a customer asks him to top off a bloody mary with Murphy's Stout. He's wearing a V-neck sweater over a polo shirt, with glasses pushed down his nose. If David Poile tended bar, this is what he'd look like.
You can find out a lot about a hockey player by talking to teammates or coaches or hockey executives, but sometimes the best place to get insight is from the guy who sees the man when his guard is down. When the pads are off. When he's with his friends having a beer.
Not that the other stories aren't compelling. They are. And when it comes to Chelios, those stories border on unbelievable. With Chelios less than a week away from being enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame, people especially seem to enjoy sharing their favorite Chelios moments.
For fellow American players of his generation, so many of those stories surround international play. Mike Modano remembers one exhibition game leading up to a World Cup when Team USA was facing a team from Europe, the opponent a hazy memory. One opposing player was being particularly aggressive against the Americans.
"Don't worry about this guy," Chelios said. "I'm going to get him."
Soon their paths crossed in front of the benches, and a quick stick to the mouth from Chelios shut the guy up the rest of the game.
"He knocked a whole row of teeth out," Modano said. "He was just one of those guys. One of the ultimate team guys."
His Team USA teammates loved him. They still do. In 1996, when it looked like Chelios wouldn't play in the World Cup because of a shoulder injury, his teammates were relentless in calling him from training camp to convince him to play. At all hours.
"I got calls at 2 or 3 in the morning at bar time from the guys in the two weeks prior," Chelios told ESPN The Magazine. "Our group of guys had something to prove."
These players knew they could compete with Canada at the highest levels but didn't have any concrete proof. They needed Chelios to pull it off.
Further complicating things was the fact that Chelios' sister was getting married on the same night the United States was playing Canada in early tournament pool play. Chelios told Lou Lamoriello that he could play on the team but would have to miss that game.
"If you know Lou, you know he said 'Then you can't be on the team,'" Team USA coach Ron Wilson said. "I remember thinking, 'This is the best player in America.'"
Chelios was in a tough spot. On one side, you had Lamoriello, a guy you don't say no to. On the other side was his dad. Same thing.
A compromise was struck. Chelios could attend the wedding but a private plane was going to rush him from the wedding in Chicago to Philadelphia where he would suit up that night for the game. Police escorts were involved.
"As soon as my brother-in-law and sister kissed, I was out the door and on the way to the airport," Chelios said. "I took a lot of heat from my parents for that one."
It's vintage Chelios, a guy who has spent his life running from place to place, staying up late and waking up early, to fulfill every expectation in his life. Not just to be there, but to live it to the fullest.
"Mediocrity is not in his repertoire," said friend and former teammate Jeremy Roenick.
Chelios walked into that Team USA dressing room after the wedding with minutes to spare before the game, immediately providing a lift to a group that had been pushed around by Eric Lindros and Team Canada without him. That would change.
"When Chris showed up, the whole attitude changed," Bill Guerin said.
That night, the Americans beat Canada 5-3 in the round robin. It built confidence and momentum that led to Team USA's historic World Cup series win over Canada, in which the Americans won consecutive games in Montreal to earn the crowning moment for a group of players Brian Burke has called the greatest generation of American hockey players.
When the final seconds elapsed off the clock, Brett Hull -- who hadn't won anything of significance in his life until that point -- turned to Chelios for guidance.
"Everyone is going nuts. I look at him, I go 'Cheli, I don't know what to do,'" Hull said. "He goes 'Throw your [stuff] up and enjoy the moment.' That was my first moment."
Later that night, when the rest of Montreal seemed to shut down, it was Chelios who found a Greek restaurant willing to serve the Americans and allow the celebration to last into the morning.
"Leave it to Cheli, the Greek god, to find the Greek restaurant that would welcome the U.S. team in and keep the night rolling," Guerin said. "Next thing you know, a plate whizzes by your head and it's Cheli."
Not much longer after that night bonded these American hockey players, Keith Tkachuk's Blues and Chelios' Blackhawks were playing against each other. There was a pile up of players and Chelios was on top of Tkachuk, choking him as hard as he could.
Bonds created by country disappeared when it came time to win NHL games.
"I was on my last breath. I was down at the end of the pile. I think I tapped out," Tkachuk said. "Even after how many years we played together in these Olympics and World Cups, he just had that face you wanted to punch when he was on the other team."
One night Luc Robitaille wanted to do exactly that. Before they won the Cup together in Detroit, the two were playing against each other in Los Angeles. Chelios two-handed Robitaille and nearly broke his wrist. Two weeks later, Robitaille was still mad. He drew a penalty on Chelios, who then dropped the gloves and got a couple of shots in on Robitaille before he could get in a swing. At that point, Robitaille was boiling over.
When Robitaille was back on the ice with Chelios, he cross-checked him, dropped his gloves and was ready to finally settle the score, release weeks of frustration.
"I'll never forget. I get up, I look at him, saying every word I can think of and he's laughing hysterically," Robitaille said. "He just thought it was the greatest thing. I never forgot his face."
Chelios' teammate in Chicago Troy Murray will never forget Chelios' face when he walked into the dressing room and asked a question that immediately got the attention of the team. The Blackhawks and Blues were in a playoff series and Hull was dominating. Chelios couldn't stand it.
"He comes in and he goes, 'Who is going to break his arm?' We're all kind of looking around, thinking it's a joke. He's dead serious," Murray said. "There was a point to it. Somebody had to make sure Brett Hull doesn't beat us. And he was killing us. That was Chris Chelios."
The stories off the ice are even more incredible.
His training regiment, inspired by watching a Walter Payton documentary, is legendary. You don't play 1,651 career NHL games without being in incredible shape. Most hockey fans have heard the stories about Chelios sweating out toxins by riding an exercise bike in a sauna.
Maybe they don't know that Don Waddell, after seeing Chelios do it years ago in San Diego, tried the same thing and had to be checked into the hospital when he couldn't breathe at night following two days biking in a sauna.
"I had burnt my lungs so bad from breathing so hard," Waddell said. "I'm thinking, Cheli, why do I listen to Cheli?"
Of them all, it's hard to top Ed Olczyk's Chelios moment.
It's the summer of 1983 and they're on a Team USA bonding trip to the wilds of Alaska. The guide at the fly fishing lodge made it clear that there was one area nobody should wander off to because it was populated heavily by bears and surrounded by water. The danger was being trapped by bears.
"Sure enough, there was only one guy who ends up working himself into this finger of wilderness," Olczyk said.
And sure enough, there was a seven-foot brown bear blocking Chelios' path back to safety. Eventually, the bear wisely moved on.
"I wasn't overly worried," Olczyk said, "because it's Cheli."
His entire career is one remarkable story.
Growing up in a tough neighborhood in Chicago, the only kid in his area to play hockey. Moving to California. Nearly quitting hockey after an unsuccessful attempt to play in Canada and for a local California university. Getting an opportunity in Moose Jaw, then learning to fight for every inch of the ice when opponents figured out he was American. Learning how to play defense at Wisconsin. Learning structure under Jacques Lemaire in Montreal. Getting traded to Chicago because the Canadiens didn't think his knees would last much longer, then playing 19 more seasons. Winning three Stanley Cups and three Norris Trophies. Establishing the United States as a hockey power. Soon, a spot with hockey's immortals in the Hall.
"Chris is a story in himself, you know?" Hull said.
"Probably the best American to ever play the game," Modano said. "You list the top 50 players of all time, he's on that list."
Without a doubt.
Yet that's not necessarily the Chelios the guys at Stanley's see.
Oh, they've heard the stories. They even have a few of them of their own -- if you visit, ask Donnie to tell the one about the day that started on Chelios' boat and ended up with a police escort to the front row of a U2 concert.
Art's favorite story is much simpler.
It was over 20 years ago at a local family ice rink in the Chicago area. His 7-year-old nephew was waiting in line at a concession stand when the server spotted Chelios, then at the height of his popularity with the Blackhawks, standing behind him.
Looking past the kid, the worker excitedly asked Chelios what he could get him from the concession stand.
Chelios quietly motioned toward the boy and made sure he was completely taken care of before ordering anything. That leaves an impression on a 7-year-old.
"He never forgot," Art Moher said.
Standing a few feet away from a Chelios-signed Blackhawks jersey, Donnie Kruse shares his stories. How he's never once seen Chelios turn down an autograph request. How Chelios discreetly takes care of bar tabs and always remembers the first name of every worker at the place. How he always finds his way back to Chicago to see his daughter play lacrosse at Northwestern despite a packed schedule.
Art nods his head in agreement.
"He's an unbelievable father," Moher said.
When Chelios first broke into the NHL, he remembers Sunday afternoons when the veteran players on the Canadiens would bring their kids into the dressing room. He remembers thinking how he couldn't wait to be one of those dads.
"I could never imagine," Chelios said. "I knew it was going to be good ... I never imagined it would be this great."
In addition to Caley at Northwestern, his two sons, Jake and Dean, play hockey at Michigan State. Chelios thinks his other daughter, Tara, is headed to Northwestern too.
Of all the memories he built in hockey, winning the 2002 Stanley Cup stands out because his whole family -- wife Tracee and four kids -- got to be a part of it.
His efforts as a dad rivaled anything on the ice or in the gym. He'd take a red-eye to attend a school play. He'd drive all night long after a game to catch part of a hockey tournament the next day involving one of his sons. More recently, he crammed in a flight to Alaska just to see one Michigan State hockey game. Then he flew out. Growing up, Jake said he took for granted that his dad was always there. Now, he's starting to understand what it means.
"He finds ways to get there no matter what," Jake said.
"It's always been family first," said Dean. "Over hockey. Over everything. He's been the ringleader."
His teammates know the feeling because in hockey, they were his family.
Chelios was always completely inclusive; team dinners and outings included everyone. With his Hall of Fame induction coming in Toronto, he's again trying to make sure everyone can be a part of it. His entire family, the friend who got him a hockey opportunity decades ago in Moose Jaw, the guy who paid his way through two years of high school, the owner of a bar in Chicago. And of course, the hockey players he either tried to injure or win with -- depending on what uniform they were wearing at the time.
They'll all be there.
"Life is about sharing with someone," Chelios said. "I really believe that."
HOCKEY HALL OF FAME
On Nov. 11, the Hockey Hall of Fame will induct Brendan Shanahan, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Chelios, Fred Shero and Geraldine Heaney.