Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Rollercoaster Year For Chelios

"Terrible" Ted Lindsay would be terribly proud of Chris Chelios.

His much publicized battle with player's union boss Ted Saskin lead to the discovery of corruption at the highest level; the discovery of a perverted version of the union Ted Lindsay helped organize. Yet, the player's union drama has been only a part of the rollercoaster season for the twenty-two year veteran of the NHL.

In many ways, the fact that Chelios, 45, is still playing in the NHL is astounding. But the aging defenseman, in excellent physical shape, was back for another season with Detroit.

Detroit resigned Chelios to a one year deal before the offseason with expectations that he would be a solid fifth or sixth defenseman. His ice time would be diminshed, but he was expected to focus on being more of a stay-at-home type defenseman. His presence and experience on the blueline would be valuable for his young partner Brett Lebda.

The 2006-07 season started out well for Detroit, but Chelios suffered a groin injury that forced him to miss six games. Once back in the lineup, Chelios proved he could still play at a competitive level. He still could be the nasty defenseman, but he picked his spots and instead focused on playing a positionally sound, stay-at-home game. The former three-time Norris trophy winner was still sharp at making the initial breakout pass and at times could still join the rush offensively (his slapshot shattered the glass in a game this season).

As the Red Wings continued to play well on the ice, Chelios' battle with NHLPA boss Ted Saskin
continued to heat up. In the early months of the season the war of words continued between the two in the press. In October, Saskin publicly responded to the lawsuit brought forth by Chelios,
Edmonton Oilers goaltender Dwayne Roloson and former player Trent Klatt.

"The claims issued in the complaint are the same claims that have been made repeatedly over the last 13 months by this tiny group," said Saskin to the Canadian Press. "These claims, including the offensive allegations of illegal conduct, are completely without merit as has already been demonstrated in many forums on a number of occasions."

Despite having the lawsuit thrownout by a federal judge in the United States, Chelios and his group of supporters continued to pursue the matter into Saskin's hiring and continued to apply pressure.

By the end of the first month of the regular season, the Red Wings were tied for the division lead with Nashville. The team was playing well and Chelios was making the most of his minutes. In the first season without Yzerman and Shanahan, the Wings were still a competitive team atop the standings. Afterall, this was supposed to be a transition year for the Wings. But with veteran players like Chelios in the fold, this team was able to remain competitive while rebuilding.

For Chelios, battles were raging not just on the ice, but off it as well. It couldn't have been easy to deal with the lawsuits, the naysayers, fellow hockey players-even teammates-questioning you, criticizing you behind your back, or maybe even to your face. Teammate Mathieu Schneider is the Players Association Vice President, and despite his concerns about Chelios' lawsuit, he claimed all things related to the lawsuit would stay out of the dressing room.

"Pretty much want to keep it out of the dressing room as much as we can," Schneider said. "It's an outside issue. Once the season started, we agreed that it's in everyone's best interest that we focus on our team and what's going on here."

While "business" may not have been talked about in the locker room, I'm sure there must have been tension at times. That tension may have existed on the ice when Chelios played opposite of the other players named in the lawsuit (Bill Guerrin and Trevor Linden). For all intents and purposes, Chelios became the face of a very public and heated witch hunt of a man who had yet to be proven guilty for any crime.

As 2006 came to a close, the Red Wings posted a 24-9-5 record and were feeling good about what they acomplished so far. Unfortunately, Chelios would suffer a tragedy that would affect him deeply. It would stay with him the rest of the season and through the playoffs.

In January, two employees of Chelios' bar, Cheli's Chili, were found brutally stabbed to death inside the restaurant. Chelios knew both employees personally and their deaths struck a heavy blow to the heart of the grizzled hockey player. Chelios, clearly shaken and distraught at a press conference, requested time off "indefinitely" to deal with the incident.

Chelios missed two games. One of those games was the Steve Yzerman jersey retirement night, January 2nd. It must have been tough for the seasoned Chelios to miss his friends jersey retirement ceremony--to be a part of a special night, a historical night--especially given the reason he had to miss it in the first place.

In March, the Toronto Star reported a story that NHLPA executives were illegally monitoring player emails. The battle between Chelios and the NHLPA, specifically Saskin, re-ignited with this stunning news. The Toronto police launched an investigation. What started out as a battle over the hiring procedures of a union head now became a criminal investigation.

The Wings continued to roll, piling on wins and by March 26th, the team was 46-19-11. That night, Chelios finally had something to smile about. USA Hockey honored Chelios for becoming the all-time leader in games played among American players. As the Joe Louis crowd stood and cheered, he was presented with a beautiful lithograph of him in his USA uniform, Red Wings uniform, Blackhawk uniform and Montreal Canadian uniform. Chelios surpassed Phil Housley's mark of 1,495 games.

On April 7th, the Red Wings finished the regular season, a top the Central division and second in the NHL with 113 points (50-19-13). For the first time since playing for Montreal in the 1983-84 season, Chelios failed to register a goal in the regular season. But the defenseman finished with 11 points and a +11. He also kept his penalty minutes down to a lowly 34 minutes.

As the playoffs started, Chelios was averaging 16 minutes per game. After Schneider and Kronwall went down with season-ending injuries, the 45-year old defenseman's minutes jumped from 16 to an average of 25 minutes per game. Not only that, he was seeing power play time. Clearly, the signing of Chelios during the offseason began to pay dividends. He went from being a sixth defenseman to a top four defenseman during the playoffs. Not only did he have to deal with increased minutes, he was paired with rookie defenseman Kyle Quincey. Chelios did a tremendous job with Quincey. When Quincey would make a rookie mistake, the veteran Chelios was right there to eliminate the threat or to turn the play up ice for the Wings. Again, the Wings had to be grateful they signed Chelios.

A day before the Wings opened their series against the Ducks, the NHLPA's executive board voted in favor of terminating Ted Saskin--a step toward vindicating Chelios. ''I doubt it's over,'' Chelios told The Canadian Press. ''We haven't heard from Ted yet. But it was a unanimous vote today, which was nice. We're all on the same page. We're moving forward.'' Since then, evidence has emerged that Saskin indeed accessed player emails among other illegal activities and violated privacy issues.

Does Chelios feel vindicated?

"I don't want to say vindicated," he said. "All along, I never said it was anything personal. It was just what was best for the union."

The Red Wings overcame injuries to two of its top four defensemen and made an impressive run to the Western Conference Finals before being eleminated by the Anaheim Ducks in six games. By any standard, Chelios had an excellent playoff. He lead the team in blocked shots with 33, and ranked third among defensemen in hits behind Lilja and Markov. Just as he was in the regular season, Chelios was a plus-player in the playoffs as well, finishing with a +7. He lead the Red Wings defensemen with that +7 and ranked fourth among all defensemen in the playoffs in the plus/minus category.

Chelios took the loss to Anaheim rough. His excellent playoff would be overshadowed by a momentary lapse in judgement that can be chalked up to nothing more than raw emotions. It is a tradition in the NHL to shake hands with the opponents who advance at the end of a series. If anyone respects tradition and the history of the NHL, it's Chris Chelios. But, as game six concluded and the Wings were eliminated, Chelios skated over to the Ducks bench and congratulated the coaching staff. He then went directly to the locker room, avoiding the respected handshake.

Chelios recieved criticism from all over the place, including from Red Wings fans. Ducks players, specifically Teemu Selanne, took shots at Chelios: "It shows what kind of guy he is," Selanne said. "It's easy when you have success to be a good guy. But when something happens and it gets tough, a couple of guys from Minnesota did it and now, he does it. I don't really care, you know. Maybe I'd like to say, 'Have a good summer.' "

After taking a few days, Chelios came forward with an explanation: "Nobody's bullet-proof," he said. "I'm the biggest believer in tradition, having honor and showing class. To be totally honest -- this is not an apology I couldn't lie -- with all sincerity, trying to keep it together in the last 20 seconds of the game realizing we were going to get knocked out, it was almost a blackout kind of thing going to the room, coming back and shaking hands with the coaches. Whether you're going to get sick and throw up or bawling your eyes out. It's a situation where I've found myself not being able to control my emotions maybe twice in my life. I mean this with all sincerity ... no disrespect to the Ducks, no animosity towards them ... I just couldn't control it. I don't want to get into the details."

Perhaps those details stem from the tragedy that took place at his bar. Maybe Chelios was playing this season for the memory of his two employees. Maybe Chelios promised the family members that he would win the Cup for them. It's never been said by Chelios, but I'm sure the emotions he felt at the end of the game were not solely tied to losing a hockey game.

"I've always done the right thing and tried to do the right thing," said Chelios. "Set a great example for the Detroit Red Wings and my family. I saw Selanne's quotes and I think he understands I've been through a lot off the ice as well as on the ice...which might have had something to do with it. In the last 20 seconds, a lot went through my head."

This incident was the culmination of a rollercoaster year for one of the greatest defenseman to play the game. It also shouldn't distract or taint the wonderful season Chris Chelios had for the Detroit Red Wings in the regular season and the playoffs. His value to the Red Wings and his strong play this season, along with leading the charge against the corrupted NHLPA, didn't go unnoticed. Chelios was named the recipient of the Mark Messier Leader of the Year Award for his outstanding performance as a player, his vast leadership skills and his dedicated humanitarian efforts.

"I don't have many regrets about my hockey career, but one might be never having had the opportunity to play with Chris Chelios," Messier said. "I have always admired his commitment and dedication to the game, and I have never heard a negative word spoken about him, which is a true testament to his character. In addition to his ability to lead his teammates both on and off the ice, he is an incredible ambassador for the game of hockey and a wonderful role model - totally committed to his community and giving back to those in need."

At the end of the day, Chris Chelios is just a person. Remove the professional athlete label and you still have a human being. The experiences, the tragedy, the triumphs, the vindication and the disappointment that Chelios endured this past season is difficult to deal with no matter what profession you hold in life. In one season, he went through a tremendous range of emotions--a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows.

"Terrible" Ted Lindsay would be terribly proud of Chris Chelios and not just for helping to clean up a corrupted players union. The outspoken, old-school Red Wing would be proud of the good player he still is on the ice, for the teammate he is in the locker room, for the honorable person he is in the Detroit community and for the way he handled a difficult, challenging year both professionally and personally.


Paul said...

Great job on the article.

dougie said...

I really enjoyed that!

Site bookmarked, and please keep it coming this summer.