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Beach bum's lucky break: How Chris Chelios' Hall of Fame career almost never happened at all

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

The never-ending career of Chris Chelios never should have begun. At age 17 he tried to walk on a startup college hockey program in San Diego, of all places. He had mononucleosis. He got cut. If he was a prospect at that point, it was for a beer-and-pizza league. He was working, going to school, bumming around the beach.

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A chance meeting on a San Diego beach started Chris Chelios on his Hall of Fame career.

But on the beach at La Jolla Shores a couple of weeks after he didn’t make the team at United States International University, he spotted the players training in the sand. He waved to one of them, Bobby Parker. Memories are hazy now – it was 1979, and no one knew then that this was history – but Parker came over to chat.

“What about hockey?” Parker asked.

“I’m done,” Chelios said. “I play senior league.”

Parker had made it at USIU, but the team was brand new, the facilities weren’t great and he was homesick. He was headed back to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, to play Tier II junior. He was leaving the next day, actually. “One more day,” Parker said, “and I wouldn’t have been there.” Parker told Chelios if he wanted to keep playing and learn the game, he should come to Moose Jaw, too.

Chelios had gone to Canada the year before – and failed. He bought a plane ticket to Montreal and tried out for a team in Hawkesbury, Quebec. He got cut. He tried out for another team in Chatham, Ontario. He got cut. He might have tried out for yet another team in or around Windsor, Ontario. He can’t remember. What he does remember is this: He ended up at a bus station in Detroit, broke, and had to borrow money from two strangers from Utah to pay his fare back to San Diego.

Moose Jaw?

Parker gave Chelios the number for the coach, Larry Billows. Chelios threw it in the glove box of a buddy’s car and forgot about it. A couple of days later, he and the buddy were headed back to the same beach. He remembered the number. He pulled it out and called Billows – collect – from a payphone near a lifeguard tower.

“What position do you play?” Billows asked.

“What are you looking for?” Chelios responded.

“D-men.”

“I play ‘D.’ ”

Chelios had never played defense before. He had been a forward, an undersized forward at that. “I had nothing to lose,” Chelios said.

Billows offered Chelios a tryout. Chelios said the team needed to pay for his plane ticket. Billows said no. Chelios pleaded. He told Billows how he had paid his own way to try out in Canada once already and couldn’t afford to do it again.

“Well, we can’t help you then,” Billows said.

“OK,” Chelios said.

* * * * *

Chris Chelios is a first-ballot Hall of Famer. He will be enshrined Nov. 11 in Toronto after playing 1,651 NHL regular-season games, more than any other defenseman; 266 NHL playoff games, more than any other player, period; and winning three Norris Trophies, three Stanley Cups and an Olympic silver medal.

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Chris Chelios in the early '80s.

He was the first American to captain the Montreal Canadiens and the first American to win the Norris. He represented his country in tournament after tournament and is known as the godfather of USA Hockey.

He was runner-up for the Norris at age 40. He didn’t retire until age 48 – 22 years after the USIU program folded – after all those seasons with the Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings, plus one last season in the minors and a seven-game stint with the Atlanta Thrashers. No one older has played in the NHL but Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, who finished at age 52.

He owns a beach house in Malibu, Calif. His name is on Cheli’s Chili Bar in downtown Detroit. His friends include athletes like Michael Jordan and Laird Hamilton, musicians like Kid Rock and Eddie Vedder, actors like John Cusack and Cuba Gooding Jr. – “all because of hockey,” he said.

How did that all happen?

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“I had no business making the NHL, much less the Hall of Fame,” Chelios said. “I played because I wanted to play. I didn’t even know the route players took to get to the NHL. It never occurred to me that I was going to make the NHL.

“I’ve never, ever thought about my future. It’s like the Greek thing. You live day to day. You enjoy it and then worry about tomorrow tomorrow. That’s just the way it is. I’ve always been like that. There was no pressure to make it, because I never cared. I never cared about the NHL until I actually thought I’d made it.”

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Chelios won three Stanley Cups, the final time in 2008. (Getty)

Chelios was born in Chicago the son of Greek immigrants, Gus and Sue, who ran a series of bars and restaurants – some successes, lots of struggles. There is only one romantic part of his backstory: He started out playing goalie in the park in boots because he had no skates. He got his first pair when he was 7. His mom took him to Ace Hardware. He fell in love with the game and begged to play on a team.

The family moved about as far away from hockey as possible. “We moved to Australia to go into business and stay there,” Sue once said, “but we changed our mind.” The family came back to Chicago after two or three months.

Chelios worked for his parents. He put empty bottles in crates. He restocked the cooler. He bussed tables, washed dishes, mopped the floors. He never got paid, but his parents paid for his hockey. His favorite athlete was a football player, the Bears’ Dick Butkus.

Then the family moved to San Diego when he was 15 going on 16. He kept working. He kept playing in a local league. He bought his own ticket to Montreal because some of his Chicago buddies were trying out in Hawkesbury. But that didn’t work out, and neither did Chatham (and maybe Windsor), and neither did USIU. Now he couldn’t even get to Moose Jaw to try out. He was going to study business and play for fun.

“I mean, his hockey was done, eh?” Parker said. “There was a number of things that had to happen there.”

* * * * *

Parker returned to Moose Jaw and told coach Billows about a kid back in San Diego named Chris Chelios. Billows said the kid had already called. It wasn’t going to happen.

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Chelios (back row) ended up in Moose Jaw after running into Bobby Parker (front row, with 'A') on beach.

But the Canucks were struggling, and they really needed help on defense, and after a few days Billows changed his mind. Maybe he had nothing to lose, either. He called Chelios and offered him a plane ticket. Parker remembers sitting on the bench during a game, looking across the ice and suddenly spotting Chelios through the glass on the other side, standing there, watching.

Chelios practiced with the team for about a week. The Canucks lost a couple of games.

“OK,” Billows said. “You’re in next game.”

Chelios scored on his first shift.

Defense suited Chelios, and away from work and school, in a hardcore hockey environment, he could put all of his effort into his body and his game. He grew in stature and skill, and his talent and tenacity came out. He played for the Canucks for two seasons, partnering with Parker for much of that time. He put up 12 goals, 43 points and 118 penalty minutes in 53 games the first season. He put up 23 goals, 87 points and 175 penalty minutes in 54 games the second season.

“From the moment he stepped on the ice, it was his natural position,” Parker said. “He didn’t have a lot of speed, but he was just really solid. I’ve never seen anybody learn something or get so good at something so fast. I mean, it was really amazing. I’d talk to him about something, and right away, he’d add that to his game. The next shift, it was there. He had the keys to the rink, so he’d be in there at 1 o’clock in the morning. When everybody else is gone home or at the bar, he’s out shooting the puck.”

Chelios still wasn’t thinking about the future. The Canadiens drafted him in the second round in 1981. He went to the University of Wisconsin and made the U.S. world junior team later that year. He played for the U.S. national team in 1983-84 and went to the Sarajevo Olympics. But how many guys who had gotten drafted hadn’t made it? How many guys from the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ team hadn’t made it?

“I was kind of getting hungrier for it, but I still didn’t feel the pressure of having to make the NHL,” Chelios said.

The Canadiens put Chelios in the lineup for 12 games at the end of the 1983-84 season. He was coming off an ankle injury he suffered in Sarajevo. He said he was “terrible,” had “no confidence,” didn’t feel like he “belonged.” He figured he was headed to the minors, not just for seasoning, but for his career. Then came the playoffs.

Chelios scored in the first 10 minutes of his first game.

“Just lucky,” Chelios said. “Like someone flipped a switch, I just turned into the player that I was in Moose Jaw, that I was in college, and the rest is history. If I look back, that was the big turning point. … I was throwing the puck away, making mistakes, and then it went from that to thinking I was Bobby Orr.”

* * * * *

You know what happened next. So fast forward to the late 2000's. The end of Chris Chelios’ career reveals as much as the beginning.

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Moose Jaw (Sask.) Canucks, circa 1980. Chelios is middle row, left.

Chelios was going year-to-year with the Red Wings, chiding reporters for trying to “retire” him year after year. One summer’s day, he met Detroit GM Ken Holland at Joe Louis Arena to sign another one-year contract, then mentioned he was biking home.

“Biking home?” Holland asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” Chelios said. “I biked down.”

“You live in Bloomfield Hills.”

“I know.”

Bloomfield Hills is in Detroit’s northern suburbs. It is more than 20 miles up Woodward Avenue from downtown. Chelios was in his mid-40s.

He kept himself in incredible shape – riding a mountain bike outdoors, riding a stationary bike in a sauna, and so much more – and he kept the same attitude. He played because he wanted to play. He was willing to accept less money and a lesser role with the Wings. “I didn’t have an ego,” he said. “I just wanted to win.”

He signed with the American Hockey League’s Chicago Wolves in 2009-10. He stayed with his parents when he was in town; was close to his son, Jake, who was playing for the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel; and could drive home to Detroit. It never occurred to him that he was going back to the NHL. He went to the Vancouver Olympics to help Team USA and didn’t train for two weeks, and he wasn’t really ready when the Thrashers called.

“Realistically, I probably shouldn’t have gone to Atlanta,” Chelios said. “It was just after the Olympics. I wasn’t in shape. The timing was terrible. But there was no way I was going to say no to the opportunity. I just thought one more time, like it always happened before, lady luck would be on my side. We’d get in the playoffs, and maybe I’d buy another year. Like, that’s my mentality.”

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Moose Jaw Civic Centre where Chelios played in 1979-80 and '80-81.

Not this time. Chelios struggled in those seven games, and the Thrashers missed the playoffs. There would not be another year. But the return to the NHL did not sully him, and the return to the AHL might have summed him up more than any list of accomplishments could.

The day after the Thrashers were eliminated, he went back to the Wolves. He battled for 14 more playoff games at age 48. Though he turned over the puck to Jamie Benn, though that led to an overtime goal and a Game 7 elimination loss to the Texas Stars, he said it was “exactly the way I wanted to go out.” He hadn’t left his team out to dry. He had kept going until he couldn’t go anymore.

“I’ve said it from Day 1,” Chelios said. “There’s no way I’d ever stop loving playing hockey. I would never say, ‘I’m sick of hockey,’ or, ‘I’ve had enough.’ It never came to that point. Just physically, you know, it got to that point.”

* * * * *

Chris Chelios looks like he could still play. He thinks he could still play eight to 10 minutes for a good team at age 51, if it weren’t for a bad left knee.

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Chelios at a reunion of the Moose Jaw team, with Parker behind him in the jersey.

Among other things, he still rides his mountain bike from Bloomfield Hills to Detroit, passing folks who know him as “Hockey Man,” and he still rides a stand-up paddleboard – not just in California, but in Michigan. He keeps a couple of boards at Kid Rock’s place on the Detroit River, and he’s out on the water so often that he knows the regular fishermen. He takes boards with him to Red Wings training camp in Traverse City, Mich., so he can paddle himself and teach others how to do it, too.

“When you don’t play, I guess that’s the hole you need to fill, for that adrenaline rush,” Chelios said. “The best thing after hockey, so I don’t go through that post-hockey thing, is to stay busy. I didn’t take time off.”

He still works for the Wings as an advisor to hockey operations. He’s constantly on the road, driving more than two hours back and forth from Bloomfield Hills to Grand Rapids, Mich., to work with the Wings’ AHL affiliate, the Griffins. He watches games, makes suggestions to the coaches, goes to practices, gives tips to the players. “The presence of Chris Chelios around our locker room makes guys better, just the presence alone,” said Jeff Blashill, the Griffins’ coach. He will spend this Olympic break working as a TV analyst.

He could become an assistant coach in the AHL or the NHL. He could become a head coach. He could go into the media. He could grab his wife, Tracee, and take off for Malibu one day, maybe scout West Coast games or something. Who knows? It depends on where his kids end up, whether they stay close or scatter. For now, his sons Dean and Jake are playing hockey at Michigan State, and he can make every game, home and away; his daughter Caley is playing lacrosse at Northwestern, and he can make a lot of her games; his daughter Tara is playing hockey in high school, and he can help out with a lot of her practices and see a lot of her games; and they are the priority. He’s living day to day and enjoying it, and he’ll worry about tomorrow tomorrow. He still isn’t thinking about the future.

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Chelios, inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2011, is called the "godfather of USA Hockey."

But lately, because of the Hall of Fame, he has been thinking of the past. In his black Ford F-150 on the way to Grand Rapids one day last week, he was on the phone, going over the guest list for Toronto – Tony Danza, Bernie Kosar … There will be family, friends, teammates and celebrities. And, of course, Bobby Parker.

Chelios and Parker lost touch for years. But they reconnected late in Chelios’ NHL career, meeting up for dinner one night, and Chelios made a point to find Parker this summer. Once again, Chelios needed a phone number. So he called some old teammates from Moose Jaw, who called Parker’s parents, who said Parker had moved to Calgary, where he is now a social worker. Chelios called, invited Parker to Toronto and made sure he was coming to a reunion in Moose Jaw.

Hall of Fame speeches are supposed to last five minutes. But Chelios has always gone longer than he should, and he wants to tell at least one story, the one that led to so many others, the one about the beach.

“How did that all happen?” Parker said with a laugh. “Here he goes from just a beach bum to the Hall of Fame. Some people probably would have given up, eh?”

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