Chris Chelios has earned more than $38 million in his 18 seasons
in the NHL, but if the career of arguably the best hockey player
the U.S. has ever produced is ultimately defined by a bottom
line, it will be by a debit that is eternally to his credit.
Memorably, Chelios wrote a check for $3,000. That's a three
followed by one zero for each of his Olympic teammates who never
stepped forward to take the blame for treating their suite at the
Olympic Village in Nagano roughly the way sophomores do a frat
house during a major kegger. The difference is that one group
represents Sigma Chi, the other the United States. The payment,
which Chelios never intended to be made public, covered the
relatively minor damage, but it was also a down payment on
reclaiming the good name of USA Hockey. Chelios had nothing to do
with the 1998 incident, but he was the player who grabbed his
checkbook, who answered questions, who did not merely chant
hockey's shopworn mantra of "accountability" but also lived it.
"That says a lot about him," says Brett Hull, an Olympic teammate
of Chelios's who now plays with him on the Detroit Red Wings. "He
took a lot of heat [for the mistakes of others]."
Some who mistook the check as an admission of guilt blasted USA
Hockey for naming Chelios the captain for these Games--but Chelios
is calloused to the point of imperviousness. He listens to
coaches but answers to himself, striving for a standard as noble
as it is quixotic. "Chelly goes out every night to play the
perfect game," Hull says. Chelios turned 40 last month and there
are a lot of hard miles on his odometer, a by-product of his
combative nature. Still, he remains among the NHL's best
defensemen this season, a rock on the blue line for the Stanley
"The U.S. couldn't have a better captain," says Brendan Shanahan,
a Red Wings teammate, who is playing for Canada. "He's always
there for his teammates. You need someone to go to lunch with?
He's there. A ride to the rink? No matter how far out of his way,
he's the one picking guys up. His leadership comes naturally. He
has his finger on the pulse of a dressing room."
The Olympics pose a different challenge for Chelios. He played
with many of the U.S. players in the 1996 World Cup and again in
Nagano, and he is bound to them more by a flag than by the easy
familiarity that emerges over years of playing together in the
NHL. The Olympics, from relationships to the hockey itself,
really are a blur. In these Games, Chelios and his teammates must
survive six matches in 10 days against the world's best players,
on the larger international ice surface. They can expect U-S-A!
chants to carry them only so far.
The Games have not been kind to the teammate whom Keith Tkachuk
calls the godfather of U.S. hockey. This is his third, last and
maybe best Olympic chance, given that the U.S. squad is playing
at home, with capable goalies and a solid coach in Herb Brooks.
In the coming days Chelios will use his leadership and his
inspired play to try to write a check his aging body can cash. He
knows if he and his teammates strike gold, he can sweep the
shards of Nagano under the rug.
Unlike most American hockey players of his generation, Chelios
can't tell you precisely where he was when Brooks's plucky team
shocked the Soviet Union on its way to the gold medal in Lake
Placid. Chelios assumes he was on a bus somewhere in
Saskatchewan. He was 18 and playing minor hockey in Moose Jaw in
1980, living a Greyhound life. He watched the medal ceremony
after the U.S. beat Finland to take gold, although as the only
American on his team, he says, "It's not like I celebrated with
anybody." The lesson: Miracles, like Guinness, don't travel well.
Still there was never a better time to be a brilliant, young
American hockey player. The sport was cruising on a groundswell
of grassroots support, and Chelios was riding shotgun. In the
run-up to the 1984 Olympics the U.S. team was greeted by crowds
almost everywhere it went. There was an overriding sense that
Sarajevo would be a fairy-tale sequel, especially after the
Americans spanked Canada 8-2 in Milwaukee a few weeks before the
Games, but the Canadians beat the U.S. in the first game of the
tournament. In the second match, a 4-1 loss to Czechoslovakia,
Chelios took a shot off an ankle and spent the remainder of the
fortnight in a walking cast, removing it only to play. He didn't
bother with an X-ray until he arrived in Montreal, where he was
about to embark on an NHL career. The X-ray revealed that Chelios
had been playing with a stress fracture of his foot, but that's
not what hurt the most.
"We knew we had failed, that we had let a lot of people down,"
Chelios says, referring to the team's seventh-place finish. "A
lot of things that happened in that dressing room were pretty
disappointing. It was a real bad scene all around, from
management to players." A dejected Chelios made his uneasy peace
with his Olympics, which he assumed would be a once-in-a-lifetime
Now he would start chasing Stanley Cups, which he did with a zeal
that was almost feral. In the final minute of a one-goal game
Chelios might have been the best defenseman since Bobby Orr. He
would do anything to keep the puck out of his net or keep the
puck in the attacking zone, depending on which side of the score
he found himself on. If his team was leading 5-2 late in the
third period, he wanted to make it 6-2. When he was with the
Montreal Canadiens in 1984 and the Canadiens were up 6-1 on the
New York Islanders, Chelios tried to beat Hall of Fame defenseman
Denis Potvin one-on-one only to have Potvin cut his legs out from
under him. When Chelios returned to the Montreal bench, left wing
Bob Gainey told him they didn't need a seventh goal. "Now it
makes sense," Chelios says. "You do what the situation calls
for." Chelios learned to do that in Montreal, Chicago and finally
in Detroit, where bad knees--he had three operations last
season--limited his offense. Along the way he won a Cup with the
Canadiens, in 1986, three Norris Trophies and universal respect
for a willingness to play an edgy, almost amoral game.
"The thing I saw in him was a total commitment to doing whatever
it takes to win," says Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson, who
coached Chelios in the World Cup and in Nagano. "He doesn't run
and hide from responsibility."
While the detritus of broken chairs, gouges in the walls of the
room and a fire extinguisher that landed five floors down in a
courtyard live in Olympic lore, the real problems for the U.S. in
Nagano were on the ice. Simply put, the Americans couldn't solve
the big ice. "A decent team that was poorly prepared," Hull says
of a squad that eschewed the neutral-zone trap. "A completely
wrong system. We were giving up three-on-ones on every shift."
Chelios had found Sarajevo disappointing, but 1998 was a debacle.
"To play the way we did and then with the off-ice stuff at the
end, that was just brutal, embarrassing," he says. "You can
understand college kids doing that, but professionals...."
The captain went down with the ship while the culprits hid behind
the notion that a team should stick together. Instead of the
apologies that would have buried the story in a week, their
identities became a four-year "Who shot J.R.?"
Redemption is readily available. Chelios has returned to find a
different Olympics and a different America. "I think the way
things have gone since September 11," Chelios says, "we provide
more of an opportunity for people to pull together. No one will
be cheering against us. If we win the gold, it will be like
winning a Stanley Cup in Montreal. Just huge."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DONNA TEREK
COLOR PHOTO: DAVE BLACK Three knee surgeries last season limited his offense, but Chelios (left, in Nagano) is still as tough as they come.
Chelios and his teammates must survive six matches in 10 days
against the world's best players.