TORONTO — Every year, it’s like hockey Hollywood. Before the Hall of Fame induction ceremony, the superstars stroll the red carpet under the bright lights as the reporters beg for interviews and the paparazzi click their cameras.
This year, it was like … well, Hollywood. Here came Scotty Bowman and Ted Lindsay and the rest of the hockey royalty Monday night, and here came John C. McGinley and D.B. Sweeney and Tony Danza and John Cusack and Cuba Gooding Jr., too. In the crowd sat Kid Rock and Cindy Crawford.
“Why are you here?” a reporter asked John McEnroe.
“My buddy,” McEnroe said. “Chris Chelios.”
Cheli. Of course. With all due respect to the other inductees – Geraldine Heaney, Scotty Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan and the late Fred Shero – who else could have drawn a crowd of celebrities like that to a night of highlights and speeches?
Wayne Gretzky? Maybe. But consider that Gretzky and his wife, Janet Jones, were there not because Gretzky was, is and always will be The Great One. They were there because Chelios had asked them to come.
“I said, ‘OK, we’ll be there,’ ” Gretzky said. “I said, ‘I’m coming there for all the times you hit me and hacked me. I’m going to count them out on my hands when you’re on stage. I’m just going to keep counting how many times you whacked me.’ ”
If only we could have seen the party Sunday night in Toronto, the one that included Michael Jordan, the one that was going strong long after 2 a.m. “It was a pretty good crew,” Cusack said. If only we could hear the best Cheli stories. “I’m not sure if I can tell them,” Cusack said with a low laugh.
This is part of the Chelios legend, along with the unbelievable backstory, the three Stanley Cups, the three Norris Trophies, the Olympic silver medal, the toughness, the fitness and the longevity.
While he acknowledged a high-school friend, made a junior teammate stand up in the crowd and brought his kids up on stage Monday night, he had celebs in the seats. He is a blue-collar guy who is comfortable with both his teammates and the A-list. He knows Eddie Belfour and Eddie Vedder. “He’s just a one-of-a-kind person,” Cusack said.
These aren’t friends for show. These are friends for real. Chelios met Danza after a game in Los Angeles long ago. Chelios asked Danza where he lived. Danza said Malibu. Chelios said he had never heard of it. Danza told him to check it out, and Chelios rented for a couple of years and then bought a place on the beach, making it his offseason home.
Chelios got to know McEnroe because their kids went to sports camps at Pepperdine together. He got to know Cusack and Jeremy Piven – two guys from Chicago, like him, out in California – and became part of the Malibu Mafia.
“Malibu’s small,” Chelios said. “You start running into each other a lot and hanging out.”
Twenty years ago, Gooding started playing hockey in L.A. He had been on skates maybe eight times when he joined a pickup game with pros and celebrities. He said he tried to battle for a puck along the boards, leaned on the defenseman in front of him and took a flying elbow to the head – “right on the top of my helmet, thank god.” He fell backward, collected his gloves and collected himself.
“I’m like, ‘What’s wrong with that guy?’ ” Gooding said. “They go, ‘Yeah, that’s Chelios. Don’t go in the corners with Chelios.’ ”
Gooding tells another story: He can’t remember where they were, but they were walking through a crowd when someone yelled: “[Bleep] you, Chelios!” And Cheli just laughed.
“I was like, ‘See, now that shows you how much composure this man has and how comfortable he is in his skin. He’s still walking among the people. There’s no bodyguards,’ ” Gooding said. “I’m telling you, it taught me how to deal with hecklers and people that want to get under your skin. You can’t take any of that [stuff] personal. I think there’s something attractive about that. Just somebody to have that much confidence in himself is refreshing.”
Cusack remembers going to Chicago Stadium to watch Jordan play for the Bulls and Chelios to play for the Blackhawks. He called them “great white sharks,” the two guys who had “less quit in them than anybody else you’ve ever seen.” He said as Chelios’ career went on and they became friends, he told himself to enjoy it while it lasted. But Cheli kept going and going and going.
“Then it became this other thing,” Cusack said. “ ‘My god, how long is he going to do it? How long is he going to defy time that way?’ ”
It’s one thing to draw celebrities when you’re on the top of your game in the NHL or celebrating a Hall of Fame induction. It’s one thing to go out and party when you’re feeling good. But when Chelios was 47, he signed with the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League, and after he turned 48, he struggled in a seven-game stint with the Atlanta Thrashers and still went back to the AHL for the playoffs. Cusack went to see him play.
“He says, ‘I’m not going out on top, I’m going out on the bottom,’ ” Cusack said. “He was laughing. And so we went to the Wolves game, and I remember going to see him there, and here he was with all these minor-leaguers. It could have been a sad story, but it wasn’t, because he took his show there. ‘This is what I do.’ It was sort of amazing. He was this Hall of Famer, clearly, amongst these kids, and they were running him and doing all these things, and he’s like, ‘I play hockey.’ ”
Someone checked Chelios and damaged his teeth. Not only did Chelios finish the shift and finish the game with his team, he finished the night with his friends.
“I see him later, and he’s got his teeth gone,” Cusack said. “He goes, ‘How you doin’? I’ll go to the dentist tomorrow. We’ll go out.’ So he goes out all night with his teeth all chipped. I was like, ‘That’s Cheli, man.’ ”
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