A lot of us can trace how we’ve “grown up” in our feelings toward Chris Chelios.
Earlier today, it was announced that Chris Chelios will become a team ambassador for the Hawks, leaving the Detroit Red Wings as he wanted to be closer to his family here in the area. That will make him the only team ambassador who can stand up 75% of the time and isn’t a total, raging piece of shit (though Chelios might be kind of a piece of shit but we’ll leave that for another time).
Chelios’s journey in the hearts of Hawks fans actually ends up being one of the stranger ones I can remember. Cheli was beloved here in Chicago for not only being the greatest Hawks d-man of all-time (and he is, at least until Duncan Keith retires), but by essentially being one of us. He was from here. He grew up in the old Stadium just like we did. He played like 75% of the crowd at the old Stadium would have if you’d tossed a jersey and pads on them and let them on the bench: completely unhinged, like every shift very well might be the last, and completely in the face of every opponent. Chelios was just about the toughest d-man you could find, and was simply a torture rack for any forward who came across him in the corner or in front of the net. But he was so much more than an over-caffeinated security guard. He had a hell of a shot, was a decent passer, and could get up on the play. He could do anything, really. His pairing with fellow Yank Gary Suter was probably the best Hawks defensive pairing until Keith and Seabrook showed up. They were also major parts of the US’s World Cup victory in ’96 in Montreal.
And Chelios found himself more in the hearts of Hawks fans because he wore his distaste for the Red Wings, Blues, and North Stars on his sleeve. Sometimes to his detriment of course, because Chelios was leading the idiotic charge against the Stars in ’91 when the Presidents’ Trophy winning Hawks were too stupid to live and somehow lost to the woeful opponents from Minnesota, with dumb Chelios penalty after dumb Chelios penalty (he racked up 46 PIMs in six games, for fuck’s sake). Chelios even went on to declare he would never play for the Red Wings. Those kinds of meltdowns were common, like ’93 against St. Louis for another example.
Of course, all those things changed when the Hawks did their head-first dive into the league’s septic tank. Chelios had already seen Roenick and Belfour get shipped off for a drunk and garbage disposal run-off, and it was clear where things were headed for him. Back then players couldn’t wield much control, and the Wings were the only team that came in with an offer. That offer was Anders Eriksson and two first rounders that became Steve McCarthy and Adam Munro, and if you don’t mind I’m going to take five minutes to punch myself in the face until my nose and brain become one.
Chelios would actually spend longer in Detroit than he did in Chicago, and Hawks fans didn’t seem to want to forgive him for it for the longest time. Then again those last few years he wasn’t much more than a very slash-y, cross check-y mascot for the Wings, but it stung. I admit to being enraged when he brought the Cup to Wrigley Field during the summer of 2008. Where did he get off? Was he just rubbing our noses in it?
But this was his home. Where else was he going to bring it? Really what I was pissed at is it still felt then like I might not ever see the Cup in Chicago for the right reasons.
Were really pissed at him? Or were we pissed that yet another Hawks hero had to find success somewhere else because the Hawks were simply just too incompetent? Were we just angry that what should have happened here with a player who wanted it as badly as anyone to happen here had to happen somewhere else? My hunch is it’s more the latter.
I don’t think I’m alone when I say my moment of clarity came when he had his Heritage Night. The boos still rang out for him, because he was still identified as a Wing. But you could tell it hurt him. You could tell he thought it was time to let go. And you know… it was. And is.
Chris Chelios loved being a Hawk. He did everything he could for an organization that quite simply didn’t deserve him as a player. And he only decided to leave when it became beyond obvious it was going to be futile from there on out. He didn’t force a trade to the Red Wings. That’s just where he was sent.
Chelios isn’t without black marks. He has that DUI from 2009 (though with the Hawks that makes you head coach material). He was one of the members of the US team that destroyed their rooms in the Olympic Village in 1998 when they turned to shit in the tournament. There’s probably one or two others.
He’s also no worse than the second-best player to man the blue line for the Hawks. He was a celebrated captain. When it comes to native Chicagoans to play for the Hawks, his accomplishments and importance simply dwarf Eddie Olczyk’s. On some really, really good Hawks teams in the early and mid-90s, he was clearly the heartbeat. Really, Brent Seabrook shouldn’t be wearing #7 because it should be hanging from the rafters. It may yet still, with the two of them claiming it.
But it doesn’t, mostly for reasons out of Chelios’s hands. It wasn’t his fault that the organization became a cartoonish heel towards its fans and players (though I guess he can take a little responsibility in those teams from ’91-’95 not winning. Not ’96, when the team doctors numbed his whole leg and nuts before the critical Game 4 against the Avs and he couldn’t play. Had he played, the Hawks very well might have won that and taken a 3-1 lead and then who knows?). It wasn’t his fault he got shipped off to our most hated rival, who just happened to be one of the greatest teams the league had ever seen at that point. It wasn’t his fault that the Wings treated him as the Hawks should have. And it’s not his fault that the jealousy and bile Hawks fans carried against Detroit for so long was taken out against him.
None of that matters now. And it’s not like team ambassador is an important position. But Chelios is back where he’s always belonged. It should have never taken this long. It probably should have never happened at all this way.