Chicago Blackhawks raise Chris Chelios’ No. 7 to the rafters: ‘I’m so grateful’

CHICAGO — Chris Chelios took center stage at the United Center ice Sunday to speak before his banner was raised to the rafters, officially retiring his No. 7 jersey. The South Side native turned the affair into a Chicago homecoming rally.

“Where I came from it’s so hard to believe that this is actually happening today. I’m so grateful,” the Hockey Hall of Fame defenseman said before the start of the Hawks game against the Detroit Red Wings, featuring Patrick Kane’s return to the United Center.

Chelios, who won two championships in the Motor City after the Hawks traded him, started the ceremony with a ride onto the ice in a black classic car along with his mother, Sue.

“Hopefully by the time I’m done speaking, you’re going to understand how much I love the city of Chicago, the Chicago Blackhawks, my teammates, your fans, my friends, and most of all my family,” said Chelios, who spent nine years of the 1990s in a Hawks uniform.

Chelios put on his fan hat and ticked off the championships he watched his hometown teams collect: the 1985 Bears, “my 2005 White Sox,” the 2016 Cubs and the ’90s Bulls — one of whom, Dennis Rodman, was in attendance.

And, of course, the Hawks, three-time Stanley Cup winners in the 2010s.

But a personal connection brought it all home — literally.

“The most unique thing here for me thinking about this (honor) is when I first found out that I was going to get my jersey retired, that I’m only one of two Chicago-born athletes to have their jersey retired in our hometown. And it just so happened that he was one of my childhood heroes, Dick Butkus,” Chelios said.

“He was the epitome of the South Side Chicago: big, mean, tough. And they say be careful when you meet your heroes, sometimes they disappoint. He didn’t disappoint.”

Chelios credited supporters from his past like trainer T.R. Goodman and former Moose Jaw teammate Bobby Parker, and he thanked old Hawks teammates such as Gary Suter and Jeremy Roenick, as well as next-generation player Brent Seabrook, whom he granted permission to wear his No. 7 and may one day join him in the rafters.

All of them were in the building, and that’s just the appetizer of VIPs who were in town to celebrate Chelios.

Rodman got a special shout-out from Chelios for introducing him to Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder. NHL legends Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier sat next to each other and both received ovations.

John McEnroe, wearing a Chelios T-shirt, also received a salute from the crowd when he was shown on the video board during the second period.

Cindy Crawford, a family friend, played shoot the puck with Vedder and former Chicago Cubs executive Theo Epstein during the second intermission.

Chelios gave an emotional tribute to Vedder, his longtime friend, who appeared to be a little misty-eyed and as Chelios gushed about how much the singer has meant to his family.

It was Vedder who sprung the surprise news to Chelios that his number would be retired during a Pearl Jam concert at the UC in September.

Vedder pulled him on stage and Chelios said he was nervous and kept trying to leave.

“He kept grabbing my arm, I’m trying to get away, so finally — I’m such a knucklehead — he grabs me and says, ‘Hey, look at the monitor.’”

Charlios saw a video of his career highlights and just chalked it up to a thoughtful gesture.

“Not until they dropped that banner and showed my number did I realize what was happening,” he said. “What a heck of a way to find out that your number’s going to be retired. I was blown away.”

There was just one little hiccup on Chelios’ perfect night.

He tread into the “sad part” of his NHL journey, when he was traded from Chicago to Detroit in March 1999, which invited chants of “Detroit sucks” from the crowd.

“I’m sorry, Danny,” Chelios said to Hawks chairman Danny Wirtz. “But it didn’t matter, all the years I was playing for Detroit …”

The mere mention of Chicago’s archrival city, where Chelios won two Stanley Cups, prompted lusty boos.

“I won’t say that word again, I promise,” Chelios laughed. “I’ll use ‘Michiganders.’”