The inside of Chris Chelios’ Ford F-150 looks like an office. Sticky notes. Business cards. Notebooks. A phone.
“I get a lot done in the car,” he said. “That’s why I don’t mind driving.”
He’s 51 now, about to go into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Nov. 11, but he hasn’t stopped just because he retired as a player. He stays in great shape. He motors back and forth on the highway, working for the Detroit Red Wings as an advisor to hockey operations, watching his sons and daughters play their sports at their schools.
Last week he let Yahoo Sports come along for the ride as he went to see the Wings’ American Hockey League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Griffins. Some of the interview told the incredible story of his playing career. Some of it is here in edited Q&A form. We could go on forever, but we won’t. He is going to write a book.
Could you still play?
“Could I play eight or 10 minutes a night on a good team like the Wings? Maybe. But no. I always said it was going to be a physical thing why I couldn’t play, and towards the end of my career I couldn’t train because of my left knee. That’s what really limited me. I couldn’t do the heavy workload in the gym to get to the level I always was at. So basically, to answer your question, no, I couldn’t have kept playing.
“I don’t skate a whole lot. I’m on the ice pushing pucks and blowing whistles. When I do skate hard in practice, I feel it for the next day or two, but it goes away. For the Winter Classic [alumni event], I was thinking of skating, getting in shape, working real hard with [former Wings center] Kris Draper and his crew. But for me, it’s better just to do things that don’t hurt and get my conditioning. I’m not going to skate, because I think if I did, it would be killing me by the time the game rolls around.
“I think Drapes is still working out harder than anybody that I’ve ever seen after they’re done in hockey. He trains hard. He didn’t play until he was 48, either. If he’s doing that when he’s 48, I’ll be surprised.”
You mountain bike. You stand-up paddleboard. What else?
“In the summertime, I’m outside, so I do all kinds of stuff. The paddleboarding’s great. It’s great exercise. Surfing’s great for you. I pull this goddamn railroad tie in the sand that’s got a harness on it just to kill time during the day.”
You’re 51. You own a Malibu beach house. Why not sit there and do nothing?
“I do sit there and do nothing. Trust me. But after a couple hours, you find something to do. The schedule, basically, it’s mountain biking in the morning. If there’s waves, you surf. It’s one or the other. You go for a late breakfast at 11 or 12 o’clock. You’re back at the beach at 1 o’clock. That’s when you’ll do some stuff. There’s a sauna right there. And then people come over at 4 o’clock, whether it’s happy hour or the sauna. A lot of volleyball.”
What happens in the winter?
“I get bored. It’s pretty frustrating, long winters, from a physical standpoint, because you get so spoiled from California in summers, how great it is to get outside. I’m sure every person goes through that.”
So you go to spin class sometimes, too?
“For 45 minutes to an hour, burning 1,000 calories, I can honestly say I’m more tired doing that than I was practicing. It’s a room with 20 bikes in it. Average people. Some athletes and just normal moms and dads. It’s not for the extreme athlete. You can make it as hard as you want. The teachers are great. Everybody goes at their own speed. You can’t see anybody. They turn the lights out, and you can go at your own speed so no one feels intimidated.”
Do you see yourself as a coach more than an executive?
“I enjoy being in a sweatsuit rather than a suit. I’m lucky enough that [Wings general manager Ken Holland] allows me to work my own schedule. I try and fill the days with work, but when my kids have events or activities, that comes first. Right now it’s good for me and good for Kenny and the Detroit Red Wings. I am learning how to coach. It’s basically an internship working under [Griffins coach] Jeff Blashill and [assistant] Jimmy Paek. After this year I think I’ll be prepared for sure to be an assistant coach anywhere, whether it’s in the NHL or the AHL, if I decided to do that. Being a head coach isn’t out of the realm, either.
“The only thing right now that’s stopping me is my kids and having to be on an 80-game schedule again. At some point, I’m going to have to try it and see. But now, after playing so long, I’m really enjoying my free time with the family and my friends, being able to travel wherever I want, whenever I want. Maybe I’ll get sick of it and decide I want an itinerary again, but right now I’m content with what I’m doing.”
What can you add that others can’t?
“[Wings defenseman] Brendan Smith, for example, I know exactly what he’s going through, his struggles. Twenty years ago, Smitty has no problem playing in the league. He’s got all the skill and vision. But now he’s trying to fit into the system. That’s one of the issues that Smitty’s having. People will look and say, ‘What’s he doing?’ I see what he’s thinking.
“Hockey’s way better now. The systems, you don’t see ‘D’ taking it end to end like you used to. It’s just not going to happen. That’s what I think my value is. I can talk to the kids. I still stay within the systems, but I can help with little things until they make it. Once they get their confidence and hopefully the opportunity to be in that role – power play and penalty kill – then they’ll get that leash. You’ve got to get there first.”
Have you been offered jobs?
“Not so much offered. People have asked me if I want to put my name in the hat to work. The answer’s the same every time: No. Right now I couldn’t think of anything better to be doing. I enjoy working with the young kids. To win the Calder Cup your first year is pretty exciting. Not that I played a big part of it, but I was still part of the team.”
You were active in the NHL Players’ Association and outspoken against NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. What about the union?
“I really seriously contemplated working for the PA, mostly because I wanted to stick up for the players. Honestly, I’d love to sit in an office and go head to head with Bettman and [deputy commissioner Bill] Daly and those guys. But right and wrong doesn’t fit into the equation. I’m not going to ever be able to beat them in an office. It’s impossible. That’s what they do for a living. But I think I could have been a strong voice for the players.
“And I still contemplate doing that, maybe taking a year off. But there’s no need for it right now, I don’t think, other than what’s going on with injuries and rules. I would like to add my two cents in for that, but as management now, you’re not allowed. You’d get fined.”
What can you say about that?
“Since they changed the rules and there’s no interference and no holding up for your partner, creating picks, that’s why guys are getting killed. Plain and simple. But because of egos, no one wants to admit they’re wrong. That’s the biggest problem in hockey. Forget about the fights. More guys are getting hurt getting run into the boards than they ever do in fighting. It happens every once in a while where there’s a serious injury, but fighting’s not the issue, and you still need that. It’s a way that the players can govern themselves on the ice.”
Are you ready for your induction speech?
“It’s just a matter of practicing it for an hour a day until the day comes. I don’t even have it written. I have my bullet points. Because it’s only a five-minute speech, you can’t really elaborate on any single thing.”
How do you fit everything into five minutes?
“You don’t, and that’s why I’m going to write the book. There’s so much more I want to share with everybody.”
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