Chris Chelios: The Veteran Leader Who Brought Experience to the Red Wings

Discover the surprising journey of Chris Chelios, the fierce rival of Detroit Red Wings, as he defied expectations to join Hockeytown.

There were few fans of the Detroit Red Wings who could say that they liked Chris Chelios during the mid to late 1990s when he was the captain of the hated rival Chicago Blackhawks and even fewer who could ever imagine him not only playing for Detroit but winning multiple Stanley Cups with them.

Chris Chelios Red Wings broadcast

NHL Chelios won early and often in the 1st part of his career

Chelios first made his debut in the National Hockey League as a fresh-faced kid with the powerful Montreal Canadiens, and even got his name on the Stanley Cup in 1986. His talent on the blue line was rewarded when he won the Norris Trophy in 1989 as the League's best defenseman.

He'd soon find himself playing for his hometown Chicago Blackhawks after being dealt to the Windy City on June 29, 1990, with a 2nd-round draft pick for Denis Savard. The Chicago native would instantly become a fan favorite, eventually earning the captaincy and adding a second Norris Trophy win to his personal trophy case.

Eventually, he'd add a 3rd Norris win to his personal accolade list, and also represented the United States during the 1996 World Cup tournament as they would go on to upset the heavily favored Canadian team.

Chelios would receive the scorn of Red Wings fans whenever Chicago visited Joe Louis Arena thanks to his frequent battles with Detroit players, even at one point scuffling with Steve Yzerman. He really became the quintessential foe that fans loathed to face, but would love to have on their team.

By the late 1990's, the Blackahwks fortunes had begun to take a turn for the worse. Frugal team owner Bill Wirtz, who alienated a generation of Blackhawks fans by forbidding home games to be shown on television, didn't want to hand out market value contracts to stars like Jeremy Roenick and Ed Belfour, both of whom would soon leave town.

A former enemy suddenly becomes a friend

While Chelios wanted to remain with the Blackhawks, he also knew that the writing was on the wall. Chicago wasn't going to be competing any time soon, and selling off more pieces was likely. Red Wings GM Ken Holland along with head coach Scotty Bowman had interest in Chelios, and despite being told originally by Blackhawks GM Bob Murray that there was no chance that he'd be traded, circumstances changed soon afterward.

The defenseman the fans loved to hate was soon a member of the Red Wings, acquired in exchange for the young Anders Eriksson as part of the major haul Holland brought in that also included forward Wendel Clark, goaltender Bill Ranford and defenseman Ulf Samuelsson.

For Chelios, he knew a trade was likely, but never imagined it would be to the team that he once swore he'd never play for.

“When they said Detroit, there was no hesitation, even though there was bad blood over the years,” Chelios would explain years later of the trade. “Two things – it was a great team and it was close to home. My sister had cancer (Gigi, died in 2000) and it was easy for me to go back and forth if (his family) needed me. I left on good terms with the Wirtz family (Blackhawks owners). They treated me great.’’

For Detroit to come in the mix at the last minute, the word shock … I just wanted to leave, so as soon as they said Detroit wanted me, I said, yeah, not thinking about the ramifications of being hated there,” he said. “Then the fact Ulf Samuelsson and Wendel Clark came at the same time (in other trade-deadline deals), they were just as hated as I was, not as much in Detroit, but pretty close, so that helped a little bit.

It may have taken Detroit fans a while to warm up to their former hated rival, but it wouldn't be long before the jeers he received from Red Wings fans quickly turned to cheers (and the exact opposite from Blackhawks fans).

“They cheered me for my first shift, it seemed like they took me in right away. But as the first couple of years went by and we lost out (in the playoffs), there were still a bunch of haters. I heard it, whether I was in bars or restaurants, that line that ‘We haven’t won a Cup since you’ve been here.’ I think winning the Cup (in 2002) silenced everybody.’’

Chelios would go on to remain with the Red Wings for the next decade, well into his mid 40's. He'd help Detroit to their third Stanley Cup championship in six years in 2002, while also being nominated for a 4th Norris Trophy that same season.

Eventually, he'd become the oldest active player in the NHL at at 45 years, 348 days. Only Red Wings legend Gordie Howe played longer. Chelios would get his name on the Stanley Cup for a third time and second as a Red Wing in 2008, and would be back for yet another season after that.

He would finish his Hall of Fame career with a brief seven game tenure with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2009-10 before hanging up the skates for good and joining the Red Wings front office.

Wrapping It Up: Chris Chelios will forever be known as a Red Wing

Chelios may have gotten his career started with the Canadiens and then captained the Blackhawks, but it will be his time in Detroit that is especially remembered by hockey fans (Red Wings fans in particular) for his age-defying performances on the ice.

Despite having returned to his roots in Chicago, Chelios remains a fan favorite of Red Wings fans, and frequently is a guest on local Detroit sports radio segments.