Column: Life of the party gets his own celebration as Chicago Blackhawks great Chris Chelios to have his No. 7 retired tonight

A group of prominent Chicago celebrities gathered frequently over the years at a Lincoln Park watering hole named Stanley’s Kitchen and Tap, where the owner afforded them some privacy and a chance to let their hair down.

It was mostly a collection of local athletes and Chicago-born musicians and actors who drank and sang karaoke and shared stories that might have been embellished a time or two after years of retelling. Imagine a Chicago version of the Algonquin Round Table but with beer and shots and a decided lack of pretense.

Chris Chelios was frequently at the center of it all, as he was in most of his pursuits in life.

The former Chicago Blackhawks star known simply as “Cheli” wanted everyone he knew to get to know everyone else, and diverse characters such as Eddie Vedder, Kerry Wood, Chris Farley, John Cusack, Ryan Dempster and Dennis Rodman became an expanded Rat Pack of Chicago celebs who congregated at the North Side joint for late-night revelry.

“I got kidnapped one night and they took me to Stanley’s,” Vedder once told me, crediting Chelios for his abduction. “Then it became like a Patty Hearst situation where I was happy with my captors.”

There are a million Chris Chelios stories, most of which are true and many of which will be retold Sunday when the Hall of Famer has his No. 7 retired during a pregame ceremony at the United Center before Patrick Kane’s homecoming with the Detroit Red Wings.

Where to begin? The tales are legendary.

Philadelphia Flyers goalie Ron Hextall attacking him during a playoff game. Parading the Stanley Cup around Chicago after winning it with the hated Red Wings. Threatening Commissioner Gary Bettman during a work stoppage, saying if he were Bettman he would “worry about my family … worry about my well-being” from a “crazed fan.”

Sending a $3,000 check and apology to Japan Olympics organizers after the U.S. hockey team destroyed a hotel room following a loss to the Czech Republic in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. Training with the U.S. Olympic Bobsled team during another NHL lockout in an attempt to compete in the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Pounding beers at the Winter Classic at Wrigley Field in 2009 after Red Wings coach Mike Babock benched him, with his sons serving as beer vendors. Providing the soundtrack to a YouTube video of someone burning the jersey of former Bears quarterback Jay Cutler in Stanley’s.

A career spanning 1,651 games and 26 seasons, ranked ninth in NHL history, with more than 48 hours of his life spent in the penalty box, 12th on the all-time list ahead of former Hawk Dave Manson.

Chelios, an Evergreen Park native and Mt. Carmel graduate, played nine of those 26 years in Chicago. He arrived in a shocking trade in the summer of 1990 that sent star Denis Savard to the Canadiens and forced a trade to the Red Wings near the end of the 1999 season over a salary dispute with GM Bob Murray.

But Chelios left a mark on the franchise from 1990-99, winning two of his three Norris trophies as the league’s top defenseman and helping the Hawks to the 1992 Stanley Cup Final. It also should be noted he helped start the revitalization of the West Side area surrounding the old Chicago Stadium, opening up Cheli’s Chili sports bar and restaurant at 1137 W. Madison St. in 1994, when few restaurateurs dared moving into the rough neighborhood.

A notorious tough guy, Chelios was once named one of the “most hated players” in the game by a Canadian sports magazine, a label he desperately wanted to shed.

“I’m not out to hurt anybody.” he once said of his fiery reputation. “But I just want to win so badly sometimes that maybe I carry things too far. I scrimmage against my own teammates sometimes, and I`ve got everybody going nuts. Everybody just wants to kill me in scrimmages.”

But off the ice Chelios was everyone’s friend — a “Chicago Guy’s guy” who always had a ticket to a Cubs or Sox game or a concert or show. Every group of friends has that one guy who initiates the get-togethers. Chelios was that guy, albeit on a grander scale than most of us.

Donnie Kruse, the late owner of Stanley’s and one of Chelios’ closest friends, named his buddy as the instigator of the Cutler jersey-burning video that went viral on TMZ in 2012. Kruse told me Chelios was upset the Bears quarterback had treated the wait staff and patrons rudely during one visit to the bar. Stanley’s was like family to Chelios, and Kruse said Cheli never forgave Cutler for the alleged slight.

The softer side of Chelios was exhibited to family and friends. When Kruse was sick in a hospital bed in his final hours in 2017, Chelios and Cusack sat with their buddy until the end. Pat Kruse, Donnie’s mother, later told me the two FaceTimed Vedder, who pulled out a guitar and played Donnie’s favorite song, The Who’s ’“I’m One,” before telling him it was “OK to let go.”

Appropriately, the Hawks asked Vedder to inform Chelios of the jersey retirement, which he did onstage, surprising Chelios with the announcement during a show last summer at the United Center.

The start of the special day begins at 2:15 p.m. when former Hawks broadcaster Pat Foley will host a panel discussion on Chelios in the United Center Atrium with former teammates Jeremy Roenick, Ed Belfour, Tony Amonte and Gary Suter. Many longtime pals, including Michael Jordan, are expected to be on hand for Sunday’s ceremony, which takes place before another big event — the return of Kane for the first time since his trade last year to the New York Rangers.

When Chelios returned to the U.C. in April 1999 for the first time after his trade to Detroit, it was Jordan’s first trip to his former home since his retirement from the Bulls in ‘98.

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“Chelios asked me to come here,” Jordan told the Tribune’s K.C. Johnson that day. “I hadn’t been to any games and my boys wanted to go. I’ve always known Cheli and wish him the best. It’s just an honor for me to come see him play. I hate to see him leave, but sometimes you have to make the decisions that are best suited for you.”

Chelios would go on to win two Stanley Cups in Detroit, becoming a legend in Motown as well. After the 2008 Cup win, I ran into him at Wrigley Field, where he carted the Stanley Cup around the ballpark for all Chicago sports fans to see, back when the Hawks were still in their title drought. He already had taken it to a Pearl Jam show at the Auditorium and planned on bringing it to Sox Park, Murphy’s Bleachers and, of course, finishing off the night at Stanley’s.

“We’ll just do a milk run all over the city,” Chelios said. “I know I’m bringing it with the wrong team, but at least I brought it back home.”

Chicago was always a place he yearned to return, whether Chelios was living in San Diego, Moose Jaw, Montreal, Detroit or anywhere else. You can leave the city, but it never really leaves you.

“I found a new home in Detroit, but Chicago is always going to be home,” he said in 1999 after returning with the Red Wings. “My parents still live here, and I intend on coming back and spending the rest of my days here, whether as a player or somehow being involved with the Blackhawks.”

On Sunday he’ll be back on the West Side to watch his No. 7 jersey raised to the rafters, with family and friends and a packed house of Hawks fans on hand.

The old gang will be there to celebrate their friend the Chicago Way, and though it’s not the old Stadium, where Chelios once dedicated a game-winning goal to “my guys in the third balcony,” it will suffice.

The party starts when Cheli arrives, same as it ever was.