LES CANADIENS : CHRIS CHELIOS : He Skated the Long Way to Star Status in the NHL
Chris Chelios’ childhood goal was to play in the National Hockey League, and he wasn’t the type to let an obstacle or two stand in his way.
When Chelios went to Mira Mesa High School, he was a hockey player without a team. When he tried out for the team at U.S. International University, he was cut.
No problem. There were other ways to get to the NHL, and Chelios found them. The circuitous route he took through junior hockey in Canada, the University of Wisconsin and the 1984 U.S. Olympic team led to All-Star status with the Montreal Canadiens.
At 26, Chelios is a four-year veteran with the Canadiens and one of the outstanding defensemen in hockey. He twice played in the NHL All-Star game and missed a third appearance only because of an injury.
Chelios grew up in Chicago, and there was plenty of hockey there. At Chicago’s Mt. Carmel High School, he played as a freshman and sophomore.
But when Chelios’ family moved here after his sophomore year, he suddenly found himself disenfranchised. High school hockey was nonexistent.
“Finding ice time in California wasn’t as tough as I thought,” Chelios said recently by phone from Madison, Wis. “My junior year in high school, I played every Wednesday night in Culver City. Sometimes I worked out there, too. As a senior, I played once or twice a week at the House of Ice in Mira Mesa (now the San Diego Ice Arena). There was always a pickup game there.”
Still, college scouts had never heard of Chris Chelios, so after he graduated from high school in 1979, he stayed home and enrolled at U.S. International.
“They had a Division I program (that recently folded), and I figured playing there would give me some exposure,” Chelios said. “If I made the team, I’d get a scholarship. Instead, I got cut.
“I stayed at USIU about a month, and I met these kids from the team who knew about the league in Saskatchewan. I got the phone number of the Moose Jaw team and called up, and the man told me to come up for a four-game tryout.”
Chelios left his home to play for the Moose Jaw Canucks of the Saskatchewan Junior League.
“It was good hockey up there, but one of their defensemen screwed up, so I got a chance. Everything went pretty well, and I stuck. That was a start.”
Chelios soon became such a hot item in Moose Jaw that college talent-hunters started calling.
“I had my choice of schools,” he said. “Besides Wisconsin, North Dakota wanted me, and Michigan and Bowling Green. I chose Wisconsin for two reasons. It was the closest to Chicago, where my relatives could see me play. Also, James Patrick from Prince Albert in the same league was going to North Dakota, and it wouldn’t be a good idea to have two right defensemen with the same style on the same team.”
He didn’t mention that Wisconsin’s hockey program may be the most prestigious in the country. The Badgers always lead the nation in attendance, and at the time they signed Chelios in 1981, they had won three NCAA championships in nine years. They added a fourth in 1983, and Chelios had a lot to do with it.
Like Hall of Famer Bobby Orr, Chelios is an offensive-minded defenseman.
In two seasons at Wisconsin, he had 97 points on 22 goals and 75 assists. In his four seasons with the Canadiens, he has 205 points on 48 goals and 157 assists. He has career highs of 64 points (9 goals, 55 assists) in 1986-87 and 20 goals (plus 41 assists) in 1987-88.
Wisconsin Coach Jeff Sauer said Chelios “isn’t as dominant as Orr was, but he always finds a way to get the job done. He’s fearless.”
Mike Kemp, a Wisconsin assistant, said, “Chris is very skilled offensively. He has great vision of the rink. Like Orr, he always sees what’s happening all around him. That’s a rare attribute.
“Also, he is one of the few hockey players I’ve seen who is truly ambidextrous. He is basically right-handed, but if the situation calls for it, he’ll handle the stick left-handed.
“I wouldn’t classify him as a physically tough guy, but his game is so well-rounded that he can react to anything that happens. He doesn’t look for rough stuff, but he is very adaptable.”
Chelios has no illusions about being a clone of the legendary Orr.
“I really don’t know that much about Bobby Orr,” Chelios said. “I never saw him play. But I don’t consider myself in his class. As the years go on, I think I’m becoming more defensively oriented.
“The big thing is that I’ve kept improving. Last season was the best for me all-around. I played as well as I can play. I was used as a penalty killer and on power plays, and I was even a winger twice.”
Chelios emerged as a prime NHL prospect when he played a key role on Wisconsin’s national championship team as a sophomore in 1982-83. The Canadiens drafted him, and he might have turned pro then if 1984 hadn’t been an Olympic year.
When the Olympic people called, Chelios jumped at the opportunity. He jumped so high, in fact, that he landed in trouble with the law. He wound up with a $328 fine and a 90-day suspension of his driver’s license for drunken driving.
“It happened right after I got a commitment for the Olympic team,” Chelios said. “It was during Christmas break in ’82, and I went out with a bunch of my Wisconsin teammates to celebrate. It’s a thing I’ll always regret, and it hasn’t happened since.”
Playing in the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo was not all positive for Chelios. He suffered a severe ankle injury, and the United States finished a disappointing seventh after it had won the gold medal in 1980.
“I cracked my left ankle in our second game (against Czechoslovakia),” Chelios said. “I didn’t know it at the time, but I finally realized it when I tried to skate but couldn’t. I didn’t want to sit out.
“Still, it was a great experience. We traveled a lot--we went to Europe three times before the Olympics--and we played NHL teams and international teams. The thing that hurt us most was losing the first game to Canada. After that, we didn’t fare so well.”
After the Olympics, Chelios was faced with a decision: Go back to school or turn pro?
“My agent and the Canadiens made my mind up,” Chelios said. “I was 22, and I figured I was ready for the pros. I went straight to the Canadiens without playing in the minors.
“There were only 13 games left in the season, and I got limited ice time. I was going so bad that I thought I had played my way off the team. But I got a goal in the first playoff game, and everything was uphill from then on. I ended up with three goals and 15 points in the playoffs. I felt like nobody could stop me.”
In 1986, the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, and Chelios said, “That was probably the highlight of my career. Drinking out of the Cup made me part of a great tradition.”
Still, Chelios says, he would probably choose to play for a team in the United States if he could. He has a home in Montreal and also spends a lot of time in Madison.
“For family reasons, I’d like to be closer to home,” he said. “Being so far away makes it tough on my family. My parents are still in San Diego--in Rancho Bernardo--and I’ve got a lot of relatives in Chicago. But things have gone so well, and I’ve been treated so well in Montreal that I can’t complain.”
Don’t be surprised if a second Chelios turns up in the NHL one of these years. Chris’ 19-year-old brother, Steve, a graduate of Mt. Carmel (San Diego’s, not Chicago’s) is playing for Ottawa in the Ontario Junior League.
“He’s a defenseman, too,” said their father, Gus. “I don’t know if he’s as good as Chris, but he’s very good.”