DETROIT – It would be like if the Detroit Red Wings made a trade today with the Pittsburgh Penguins for Sidney Crosby.
That’s the extent of the perception Red Wings fans felt about one player they made a deal for at the trade deadline back in 1999 that brought defenseman Chris Chelios to Hockeytown.
“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,” recalled Chelios, who’ll be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on Monday. “Then, the fact Ulf Samuelsson and Wendel Clark came at the same time, they were just as hated as I was, not as much in Detroit, but pretty close. So that helped a little bit too.”
But the hatred Chelios thought he was going to feel in his first game at Joe Louis Arena was far from the truth.
“They cheered me for my first shift, it seemed like they took me in right away,” Chelios said. “But as the first couple years went by and we lost out, there’s still a bunch of haters. I heard it, whether I was in bars or restaurants.
“I think winning the Cup silenced everybody,” Chelios continued. “I heard that line that we haven’t won a Cup since you’ve been here. That was in a tough situation for people to accept me, especially die hard Detroit fans. Who would ever though people in Chicago would be cheering for Detroit and they did once I got here.”
Getting welcomed into the locker room was another bridge he needed to cross.
“A lot of stares,” Chelios recalled of his first time in the Wings’ dressing room. “I’ll never forget Marty Lapointe walking up to me and he could kill me anytime, he was a tough kid, and the first thing he says is, ‘Is everything going to be OK between us?’ I started laughing. That was within the first 15 minutes I was in the dressing room.
“I said a lot of things to (Kris Draper), too,” Chelios continued. “I would have hated me for some of the things I said. But it’s the same old thing, guys hate you but would love to have you on their team. The room was easy. The guys accepted me right away. It was the fans I was more worried about.”
Being the most hated player on the ice in the opposition’s building was common for Chelios because of the style of hockey he played.
“Unfortunately the role I had to play against other teams’ top players, intimidation 30 years ago I thought was a big part of it,” Chelios said. “Honestly, I watched some of the stuff I did and I hated me for some of the things I did to skilled players. But you know what, it worked.
“You want to hit a guy and you don’t want to hit him when he’s ready, you want to hit him when he’s not,” Chelios continued. “I never wanted to hurt anybody but I can’t say at the time I was actually hitting someone that I wasn’t hitting them to hurt them. That wasn’t necessarily running them through the boards, but you wanted to let them know you were going to hit them. I expected to get booed. But I didn’t care if the other crowd was booing me,” Chelios said. “I didn’t get booed in my own rink ever by my own fans.”
Detroit was the third stop in his storied NHL career, coming from Chicago where he played 664 games. His career began in Montreal where he logged 402 games before dealt to his hometown.
He played 578 games with the Wings.
“Cheli was a player we hated to play against, but we had so much respect for him as a player that we thought he would be a great Red Wing,” said Wings general manager Ken Holland, who was able to pull off the first deal between the Original Six rivals in 33 years.
The Wings were willing to meet Chelios’ contract extension demands and that allowed him to waive his no-trade clause.
“Scotty Bowman wanted him, I wanted him,” said Holland, who dealt promising defenseman Anders Eriksson and two first round draft picks to Chicago.
“When it did hit me (that I left Chicago) was after we lost in the playoffs to Colorado, I stayed in the hotel room for two days,” Chelios said. “I don’t think I’ve ever gone into depression but that was the low part of my career. It wasn’t so much that I was in Detroit but it hit me that I left Chicago.”
The last year of the deal was 2002 where he helped lead the Wings to the Stanley Cup and he finished second in voting for the Norris Trophy, behind teammate Nicklas Lidstrom.
Chelios, 51, continued to sign one year deals with the Wings, his final one was the 2008-09 season.
“Hard to believe you acquire a 37-year-old and he ended up playing with us for a decade,” Holland said. “It’s mind-boggling, really. He was some kind of special player. Not many of those floating around.”
Chelios, 51, ranks fifth in NHL history in games played (1,651).
He ended his career with a seven-game stint with the Atlanta Thrashers in 2010. He was 48 years old at the time, becoming the second-oldest player in league history to Gordie Howe, who retired at age 52.
Luckily for Chelios he didn’t have to choose what jersey he’d be entering the Hall in.
“It’s the biggest relief,” Chelios said. “You look at my situation, I played over 400 games for three teams. They put me in a Chicago jersey in the program because that was the most games I played and that rattled a few people here in the organization. At the end of the day, because I was born and raised in Chicago, if I had to pick that would be the only reason. If I had a chance I would have put myself in a USA jersey and that would be just to pissed off the Canadians.”
Chelios continues to be a member of the Wings’ organization, hired as an advisor to hockey operations to work with defense prospects in Grand Rapids, the day he announced his retirement.
“I got lucky,” Chelios said. “Now I’m part of the whole Detroit family. Unfortunately, I’ve been disowned by Chicago. Slowly over the years they’re starting to come around. People have forgiven me for that because of the success they’ve had in Chicago. It means a lot to me because I’m from there and they should claim me as their own. That’s where I was born and raised. But I feel right at home in Detroit. Everybody’s been great to me, my family. What the Ilitches have done for me over the years.
“It’s home for now,” Chelios added. “Whether I ever go back to Chicago to take care of my parents, maybe I will but I got lucky for a guy who was hated. If things would have gone the other way and the team started declining, there’s no question they’d be chasing me out of town.”
Chelios will enter the Hall of Fame along with former teammate Brendan Shanahan, Scott Niedermayer and Geraldine Heaney.