Chris Chelios began his career with the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
When Chris Chelios began playing Jr. A hockey, listening to your favorite song involved buying an eight-track. Now, 29 years later, music is usually accessed with a finger tap.
At 46, Chelios has the kind of body that makes a Greek God envious. Despite being scratched for all six games of the Stanley Cup final, it appears the legendary blueliner will return to the Detroit Red Wings for his 24th NHL season.
Just as numbers alone could never sum up his on-ice contributions, to truly appreciate the span of Chelios’ career it must be set against the backdrop of a sporting and cultural timeline.
Consider the following:
• Chelios played his first season of Jr. A hockey (then known as Tier-II) with the Saskatchewan League’s Moose Jaw Canucks in 1979-80 at age 17. Jimmy Carter was the president of the United States, not a punch line on The Simpsons and The Beatles could have still held a reunion tour with Ringo, Paul, George and John.
The Punch Imlach-coached Toronto Maple Leafs were just 12 years removed from their last Cup title.
• When the Montreal Canadiens drafted Chelios 40th overall in June of 1981, who would win the Cold War was still very much in doubt and music videos had yet to kill the radio star.
Fifteen defensemen were drafted ahead of Chelios, whom the Habs selected only after drafting Mark Hunter, Gilbert Delorme (also a defenseman), Jan Ingman and Lars Eriksson.
2008 Conn Smythe winner Henrik Zetterberg had yet to celebrate his first birthday and Brett Lebda’s mom was probably just starting to show the fact she’d be giving birth to Chelios’ future defense partner in about six months.
• After a 12-game stint in 1983-84, Chelios cracked the Habs for good and played his rookie season in 1984-85. While Chelios did make the NHL’s All-Rookie Team, he didn’t have quite the same impact as another high-profile freshman that year. Michael Jordan, a rookie with the Chicago Bulls, needed only one month of NBA play to prompt Sports Illustrated to put him on its cover with the headline ‘A Star is Born.’
At the time, Michael Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world and nobody suspected a thing.
• Chelios won the first of his three Norris Trophies in 1989, the same year Calgary beat his Canadiens for the Cup. The Flames’ triumph made them the first team not named the Oilers, Habs or Islanders to win the Cup since 1975, a 14-season stretch. In the 18 seasons since ’89, the NHL has seen 11 different winners.
• When Chelios was traded to the Chicago Blackhawks because the Habs wanted to add Denis Savard’s offense in the summer of 1990, last June’s first overall pick, Steven Stamkos, was about four months old.
At the time, Kevin Costner was still making good movies as Dances With Wolves won the Oscar for best picture.
• Chelios won his second Norris Trophy in 1993 after racking up a career-high 282 penalty minutes in 84 games, an average of 3.36 minutes per contest. In 2006-07, a more mature, mellow Chelios posted a career-low 34 penalty minutes in 71 games, an average of 0.48 per match.
• Chelios won his final Norris in 1996 and his 72 points that season represented the second-highest single-season output of his career (he posted 73 in both 1988-89 and 1992-93).
Also in 1996, Hotmail was developed and launched as one of the first free, web-based mail services. The New York Yankees ended an 18-year World Series drought that fall – the longest in franchise history – thanks in part to the play of rookie shortstop Derek Jeter.
• Chelios was traded to Detroit in March of 1999 for Anders Eriksson and two first round picks. The deal came about a month after John Elway, who is just two years older than Chelios, was named MVP of Super Bowl XXXIII, his final NFL game.
Life for teenage boys everywhere hit a high point in ’99 when a sweet, young southern belle named Britney Spears exploded onto the music scene with her debut album, Baby One More Time. She proved to have far less staying power – and stability in general – than Chelios.
• The move to Detroit finally paid off when Chelios won the second Cup of his career in 2002, 16 years after his first championship with Montreal. At 40 years old, he was the Wings’ second-oldest player behind 41-year-old Igor Larionov.
• The 2004-05 lockout gave some older players a chance to step away from the game for a season to recharge their batteries. That was never an option for Chelios. At age 43, he signed on with the United League’s Motor City Mechanics in February, 2005 and scored 24 points in 23 games.
• The last season before the work stoppage, Chelios made $5,936,286, the highest single-season salary of his NHL career (according to Hockeyzoneplus.com). In the first post-lockout season of 2005-06, he made $850,000, a pay cut of $5,086,286 and the lowest salary he’d drawn since making $496,398 in 1989-90, his final season in Montreal.
• When Chelios takes to the ice this year he will be starting his ninth full season in Detroit, one more than the eight full campaigns he played in Chicago. Before the 2008-09 season is two months old, America will elect the fifth different president of Chelios’ NHL career and Canada could quite possibly elect the seventh different prime minister of his tenure.
If he retires after this season at age 47, Chelios will still be five years younger than Gordie Howe was when he played his last game in the NHL.
Incidentally, Chelios’ first NHL game came just four seasons after Howe’s last.
Ryan Dixon is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Wednesdays and his column, Top Shelf, appears Fridays.
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