No one is surprised that Chris Chelios is “officially” retiring. Anyone who saw him play for Atlanta at the end of last season had to know it was over.
More than a few are probably stunned, though, that he was able to play in the NHL for 25+ seasons. Even more astounding is that he played at that level until he was 48 years of age.
Now, I was impressed a few years back when Julio Franco played in the major leagues until he was 47 or so--and he was a baseball player, limited largely to a role as an occasional pinch-hitter his last couple of seasons. But for Chelios—or anyone—to play and play well for that long as amazing.
Yes, a lot of us remember Gordie Howe playing with Hartford until he was 51 or 52 in the early 1980s, but the truth is Gordie was so far removed from the player he was it wasn’t even close. It was a remarkable accomplishment—and he still put up points, for sure—but to really know Howe as a player, you had to see him play in the 1950s and early 1960s, when he was in his prime.
Chelios, by comparison, was still playing significant minutes and at a high level, well into his 40s in an era when the speed of the game made it utterly unlikely that someone his age could compete, much less thrive and standout.
It’s not that Chelios was a personal favorite of mine. In fact, while I have great admiration regarding his career and professional approach throughout his years of service, I was not a fan when, during the most recent lockout/strike, he took a job in the United Hockey League presumably to “stay in shape”. I felt it was the wrong thing to do, because he was essentially taking a job away from someone making maybe a few hundred dollars a month, when he already had millions in the bank. (In fairness, the team owner and the league were thrilled, as he probably brought in better crowds.)
But there is no questioning his talent, work ethic or accomplishments. He was traded for a somewhat fading superstar in Denis Savard, and went on to become the backbone of some really strong Chicago teams (under Mike Keenan and others). I was among those who wondered what he had left in the tank when he went to the Red Wings in his late 30s, yet he helped them win two Stanley Cups and was a leader there for almost 10 seasons.
I think hockey historians will look back, years down the road, and recognize just how unbelievable his accomplishments were in the modern-era. We talk in terms of records that will never be broken. Even though hockey players train more and better than ever, and most still play not only for the money but because they love the game, I can’t imagine someone ever playing until he is 48—and at the level Chelios did.
I used to think that the big money that guys made would dissuade most from long careers, since they wouldn’t “need” the money as they got older. But if you truly love the game (I’m sure the money doesn’t hurt) I guess you still want to keep playing as long as possible.
Regardless, Chelios was a rarity.
He should do well in a management capacity with Detroit. I have no idea if he is interested, but he could certainly coach, and will likely be another in a long line of players in the Red Wing system—past and present— who will have a long career in the game after retirement.
I posted recently about the burgeoning numbers that will soon vie for a roster spot with the Leafs this fall. The much-discussed “top-six” forward spots will be hard to fill, but finding candidates for the “bottom-six” won’t be nearly as difficult—at least in terms of candidates available to man the vacancies.
I’m likely forgetting somebody, but assuming Versteeg is an automatic second line winger, Christian Hanson now officially joins Orr (a lock), Armstrong (a lock), Sjostrom (a lock), Mitchell, Brown, Mueller, Caputi, D’Amigo and Irwin.
I was hoping that Hanson, who showed glimpses of offensive skill toward the end of last season, would use the World Championships as a springboard into this season. While he made and played for Burke’s U.S. side, the team did not advance and as a result, Hanson never really gained the kind of potentially invaluable experience that might have been a catalyst heading into this season.
I’m not suggesting the Leafs are set in terms of third and fourth-line forwards, simply that they at least should have guys competing and ready to jump in from the Marlies as needed. In fact, I don’t believe the “bottom-six” is particularly strong at this point, unfortunately. But I’m ready to be proven wrong.