Chelios was one of a kind, on and off the ice

DETROIT - Ken Holland was walking through the dressing room one day when a carpenter came past with a load of equipment. Holland, the Detroit Red Wings’ general manager, was unaware of any construction project at Joe Louis Arena.

“What’s going on?” Holland asked.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” the carpenter replied. “Chris Chelios is paying for this.”

Chelios was having a hole cut into the side of the sauna and a window installed. That way, he could put a television outside and stationary bike inside. He could watch hockey while he worked out in the heat.

“He was 40 years old,” Holland said. “Most 40-year-olds would have had a heart attack and that would have been the end of them.”

But Chelios wasn’t like most 40-year-olds - or 42-year-olds, or 44-year-olds, or 46-year-olds - and there was no end to his amazing playing career until Tuesday, when he announced his retirement and accepted a job as the Red Wings’ advisor to hockey operations.

The Wings held a news conference at the Olympia Club inside Joe Louis Arena, on the other side of the wall and a few yards from that sauna. At one point, Holland said Chelios was 47. Chelios leaned forward and corrected him into the microphone.

“Forty-eight,” Chelios said.

No one older has played in the NHL but Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, the Wings legend who finished with the Hartford Whalers at age 52. No defenseman has played more regular season games than Chelios’ 1,651. No one has played in more playoff games than his 266.

Chelios’ longevity will define his career along with his three Stanley Cups, three Norris Trophies and countless ticked-off opponents - a career that established him as one of the greatest American-born players in history and should make him a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

At the urging of John Hahn, the Wings’ senior director of communications, Chelios collected his thoughts on Monday night. He spent two-and-a-half hours trying to sum up his hockey life, handwriting page upon page of notes on a yellow legal pad. He spread some of those pages across the black-linen-lined table as he spoke Tuesday, reminiscing about his time with the Montreal Canadiens, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Atlanta Thrashers, thanking everyone from owners to coaches to teammates to doctors to staff members. He asked opposing fans to forgive him. He talked for about 37 minutes.

If that seems long, well, as he said, “When you play as long as I have, there are so many people.” He said he might write a book.

“I could go on forever here,” he said as he concluded. “I don’t want to do that.”

* * * * *

“Realistically this is probably - maybe - my last year. I don’t want it to be.”

Chelios said that in October of 2003. He was 41, about to turn 42 on Jan. 25. A lockout was looming. During World Cup training camp in August of 2004, Chelios had pictures taken of the team. He was the United States’ captain again, but teammates were calling him the Godfather. The end was supposed to be near.

But it wasn’t. Even though the lockout erased the 2004-05 season, Chelios played four more years for the Wings. He represented his country one more time, at the 2006 Torino Olympics. He spent most of last season with the AHL’s Chicago Wolves, but got called up for seven games with the Thrashers.

With another player, it might have been sad: a future Hall of Famer hanging on well past his prime, his skills faded, his role reduced, unable or unwilling to give up the life. But with Chelios, it was different. He insisted his goal was not to play until 50 or to catch Howe. He kept playing because he could. He wasn’t too proud to accept a lesser role, as long as he was adding value and having fun.

If the Wings had a roster spot for him now, he would continue to play. He could be part of a winner, contributing at least on the penalty kill from time to time. But those days are gone, and he realized during his stint with the Thrashers that it isn’t worth it to him to play for the sake of playing.

“That role, I would accept in a heartbeat to stay in Detroit,” Chelios said. “I would have done anything - any role. In and out of the lineup, I wouldn’t have cared. I would have done that forever. But I wasn’t going to do that for any other team, whether it be Atlanta or anyone else. At least I saw that’s not what I wanted to do.”

Chelios lasted so long in large part because of his resilient body and tremendous physical conditioning. He played for years without an ACL, and after he finally had it repaired, he rehabbed so hard that he returned in little more than three months. Whether he was paddle-surfing with Laird Hamilton, pushing his muscles to the limit with trainer T.R. Goodman or pedaling the stationary bike in that sauna, Chelios was a freak.

“You’d wake up in the morning and come down to the rink, and it didn’t matter how early you got there, he was the first one there,” said Wings center Kris Draper(notes). “I tried. I tried to get there before him. I think he kind of knew when I left my house. He had a little bit of a head start.”

The first time Draper saw Chelios riding the stationary bike in the sauna, he was geeked to get after it, too. Chelios was in there for 20 minutes. Draper lasted five and said his lungs were burning.

But it went beyond the body. Long after Chelios’ skills deteriorated, his guts and guile remained on the ice, and his leadership and popularity were ever present off the ice. Chelios - a guy who could bring celebrities like Michael Jordan, Dick Butkus, John McEnroe, John Cusack and Jeremy Piven into the dressing room - would draw teammates into the sauna not just to work out.

“One of the greatest things he did for our team was that sauna,” Draper said. “There’s a TV in there. It’s perfect. You sit there after practice or after a game, and guys are in there. We’ve got hockey games on. We’re just kind of hanging out. It’s a great place to wind down.”

Chelios grew up the son of Greek immigrants, working in various restaurants and bars in Chicago and San Diego, taking stock, cleaning up, even cooking. He never received money for it, not even an allowance. That his parents paid for hockey was his compensation. He knew what real work was. He never equated working out with it, let alone playing hockey.

“When I got into my 40s, everybody kept asking me, ‘Are you going to retire soon?’ ” said Chelios, who owns two restaurants himself - one Cheli’s Chili Bar in Detroit, one in the suburb of Dearborn. “I didn’t have an answer mostly because I didn’t want to quit and I was having so much fun playing with the Red Wings and winning Cups. I never thought it would end.”

* * * * *

Chelios never spoke about retirement with his wife, Tracee. They didn’t talk about it even on Monday, when Chelios sat down and poured out his heart on that legal pad. She told him simply to let her know when the time came. Little did she know the time would not come until Tuesday.

“I did not think it would take this long,” Tracee Chelios said. “I kind of joke about how he waited until all the kids started leaving home before he retired. He’s doing it now when it’s easy.

“No, I never in a million years thought he would last this long.”

Hahn had to prod Chelios gently to use the “R” word, but he used it. Unlike this spring, when he said was 99-percent sure he was done, now there is no doubt.

“I’m not going to leave the door open,” Chelios said. “I’m 100-percent sure that this is it. I know that I’ll never play in the NHL again. And it’s not a hard decision...I couldn’t have played any longer than I did.

“I wanted to leave the game when I thought I had nothing left and there was nothing left in the tank. So I think I pretty much accomplished that after 27 years. There’s nothing left.”

Chelios will follow in the footsteps of Steve Yzerman, who served an apprenticeship under Holland and assistant GM Jim Nill before becoming executive director of Team Canada for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and GM of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Chelios will work with the Wings’ defense prospects in the minor, junior and college leagues, and he will give the coaches and executives his perspective, while staying close to his wife and their four kids. His sons - Dean, 21, and Jake, 19 - both play at Michigan State. He would love to coach them someday.

His future seems to be more in coaching than in the front office. He does not have Yzerman’s even keel. He said he failed as a captain because he was too up and down, too emotional. He might make a great assistant coach. Perhaps he could help USA Hockey.

The closer to the ice, the more comfortable Chelios always seems to be. When Hahn arrived at Joe Louis Arena on Tuesday morning, he spotted Chelios’ car in the parking lot. He knew where Chelios would be. Chelios was in the dressing room at 10:30 a.m., one-and-a-half hours before his retirement press conference, riding the stationary bike in the sauna.