PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – He’s the most iconic face on the U.S. men’s hockey team, but he’s not a player.
That famous, chiseled mug was under a cap and behind a whistle here during practice on Saturday afternoon. Yes, that’s Chris Chelios; he’s an assistant for Team USA.
And it might only be the beginning of his coaching career.
It’s hard to find many more legendary American hockey players than Chelios. He made his Team USA debut in 1984, as one of the kids charged with carrying the overwhelming legacy of the Miracle on Ice team. He captained three more Olympic teams after that, in 1998, 2002 and 2006. He even trained for the U.S. bobsled team leading up to the 2006 Games, as the NHL was in a lockout. Yet he was still shocked when he was relaxing “on the beach, on the deck” in California and asked to come help head coach Tony Granato with the first non-NHL version of the U.S. Olympic team since 1994.
“From out of nowhere,” he said Saturday. “I just got a call. Right away: ‘Yes.’ Honored and thankful these guys picked me.”
“These guys” were Granato and former general manager Jim Johannson, a Wisconsin Badgers teammate who suddenly died in his sleep last month. The tragedy has motivated the entire team, but it’s had an added impact on Chelios. Johannson, at 53, was three years younger than Chelios.
“Whether you’re playing, or now coaching, it’s a great honor,” Chelios said. “I have ties with Jimmy and Tony back to Wisconsin. I felt lucky.”
Chelios is in charge of defense and penalty killing. Granato has given him plenty of leeway in those areas, and he’s dived right in. It’s a bit of a throwback to ’84 in Sarajevo, when Chelios was a no-name who had been cut by Junior B teams in Canada. Not a lot is expected, but a lot is at stake.
“Not that the NHLers didn’t appreciate it or respect represent their country,” he said, “but these guys, for whatever reason, it seems they feel really lucky to be part of this. I felt the same way.”
It could be a start for Chelios as well. He has served as an assistant for the U.S. during World Juniors as well as for the Red Wings, but he’s entertained the thought of pursing a job as an NHL head coach.
“I have to make a decision sooner or later,” he said. “It’s the grind of the schedule; it’s the only thing stopping me. I wouldn’t want to be an assistant coach. Video, they do all the work; it’s a thankless job. I don’t like being told what to do. That’s the stubbornness in me.”
All that said, he didn’t hesitate to become an assistant in this setting, and he’s already thrilled with the role.
“When you’re with a bunch of guys with this much skill,” he said, “you want the skill to come out.”
This tournament could go a lot of different ways for the Americans. They certainly aren’t favored, but they were cobbled together smartly by Johannson and there is a lot of skill ranging from former NHL star Brian Gionta to Boston University giant Jordan Greenway. Motivated by an opportunity none of them expected before the NHL decided to snub the Games, a fast start could lead to some lofty places here. That, in turn, might lead to some new places for Chelios. Shutting down power plays in this short tournament would be notable and reflect well on him.
“The chemistry we have here, I love it,” Chelios said. “As long as I get to run the [defense] and the [penalty kill]. I get to have the last decision. I haven’t really had a head-coaching job behind the bench. There’s an art to that. Matching lines. A bench coach. I don’t know how I’d deal with that.”
Chelios said he’s been on the phone regularly with former Badgers assistant coach Grant Standbrook, and he emulates the style of former NHL coach Jacques Lemaire, where “less is more.” He’s definitely given all of this some thought.
To this point, his NHL career has been more decorated than his international career. Chelios has three Stanley Cups and was ranked as one of the top 100 players of all time. The best he’s done for Team USA was a silver in 2002, and that is paired with the embarrassment of a poor 1998 in which the team was roasted for leaving its dorm in shambles. He is still asked about that and he still owns it – even though he wasn’t directly involved.
“We made a mistake,” he said Saturday. “It was bad enough we lost. I was the captain. We made a mistake.”
That incident is layered over by his accomplishments in the pros. It’s clear, however, that he has a special affection for Team USA.
“You look back, as disappointing as it is sometimes, you look back and feel how lucky you were to be a part of it,” he said.
Chelios is a part of it again now. And who knows? Maybe he’ll be an even bigger part of it in the next cycle and beyond.
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