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Prince of Darkness
Michael Farber
May 27, 2002
At 40, mean and nasty defenseman Chris Chelios is giving the Red Wings the toughness they need to be champions
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May 27, 2002

Prince Of Darkness

At 40, mean and nasty defenseman Chris Chelios is giving the Red Wings the toughness they need to be champions

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Having lost his spleen during the I playoffs last spring, star center Peter Forsberg of the Colorado Avalanche almost underwent emergency surgery again last Saturday in Detroit, this one performed by Chris Chelios, M.D.—Mesozoic Defenseman. After Forsberg yanked the 40-year-old Red Wing's feet out from under him while Detroit was celebrating a Brett Hull goal in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals, Dr. Chelios was ready to remove a few more of Forsberg's internal organs. Say this for Chelios: He's so old school, he makes house calls. As Forsberg skated to the Avalanche bench, Chelios caught up with him and prepared to use his lumber to make an incision in Forsberg's gut. Before he could do so, however, a vigilant linesman interceded and pointed out to Chelios that he had neither scrubbed nor given Forsberg an anesthetic. Following Detroit's 5-3 victory, Chelios offered little comment about going ER on Forsberg, although eventually he said, "Ah, I do what I want." Marcus Welby, he's not.

The Red Wings used to be a nice team, which has been one of their problems since they last won a Stanley Cup, in 1998. After ferocious defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov was crippled in a limousine accident as he returned from a team party six days after Detroit clinched the '97 Cup, the Wings have had no one on the back end who scared opponents. ("We won the next Cup because we carried the motivation from Vladi," coach Scotty Bowman says.) The patrician Nicklas Lidstrom is Norris Trophy-caliber every year, but he has never forced opponents to do an inventory of body parts after each period. Detroit needed a defenseman with hair on him, a 25-minute-per-game blueliner who could change a game's dynamics. They didn't find a hitter such as Konstantinov, but in Chelios, whom they acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in March '99, they have the same abrasiveness. "Cheli's an ugly player, like Vladi," associate coach Dave Lewis says. "He gives us that same kind of edge."

No team with Chelios can be considered nice. After setting up the first goal of Darren McCarty's shocking natural hat trick on Saturday, Chelios took the lead among defensemen in playoff scoring, with 11 points, a number more impressive when you consider that he isn't on the first power-play unit. Welcome as it is, Chelios's scoring is a diversion from what he takes most seriously—marking a powerhouse such as Forsberg. Like a kid who cuts every class and still aces his exams, Forsberg had been the most dangerous forward in the playoffs despite having missed the entire regular season while recuperating from that spleen surgery and various other ailments. He showed his greatness again in Game 2 on Monday with four points in Colorado's 4-3 overtime victory, eluding Chelios to set up the winner. Chelios was so frustrated he became involved in a postgame scrum with the Avalanche's Darius Kasparaitis. "Cheli's competitive to the nth degree," says Hull. "You can't have enough guys like that."

Chelios has been the defenseman from the dark side since he broke in with the Montreal Canadiens after the 1984 Olympics. He is a lightning rod for scrums on the ice and abuse from the stands. During a Canadiens- Boston Bruins playoff series in the late '80s, a sign written in Greek hung from the upper balcony at Boston Garden suggesting that Chelios dine on human waste. He chuckles at the memory. "Anyone who tells you he likes being a villain is lying," he said last Friday. "The unfortunate thing is my two boys [Dean, 12, and Jake, 11] have to watch it. My daughters [Caley, 9, and Tara, 6] are probably bothered by it more. I'm concerned with what my kids think, but the point I try to make is they should work hard when they do something, just like I try to do."

Chelios has always been willing to play at a level beyond desperation. That quality has led many observers to believe that of all the defensemen of the last 25 years, there might not have been any other you would rather have on the ice protecting a one-goal lead in the last minute of a game. Throughout his career Chelios's feral approach has been matched only by his underrated skating, which is marked by his ability to pivot and change directions faster than other defensemen. He looked to join the rush in Montreal and, after a trade in 1990, for most of nine seasons with his hometown Blackhawks. But by the end of his time in Chicago he was ready for a change as the Blackhawks were about to miss the playoffs for the second consecutive time. "I would have gone to Timbuktu at that point," he says of the deal that sent him to Detroit. Joining a team with excess firepower gave him the liberty to return to basics. Chelios had to leave home to become a stay-at-home defenseman.

The transition, moderately successful in 1999-2000, his first full season with the Red Wings, was derailed in 2000-01 when Chelios underwent three operations, including reconstructive surgery on his left knee. Chelios has always been tough—in Chicago he tore his left anterior cruciate ligament and didn't miss a shift—and he proved it again by rushing back 95 days after the November 2000 knee reconstruction. The hobbled Chelios played only 24 games last season. He wasn't bad, but he wasn't Vlad, either; in any case he wasn't the defensive stopper Detroit needed.

Chelios rehabilitated in his always manic summer workout program near Los Angeles and returned reinvigorated last fall, fashioning arguably the best season by any skater in his 40s since the NHL expanded in 1967-68. Chelios, a finalist for the Norris Trophy, which he has won three times, had six goals and 39 points and led the NHL with a +40 rating despite usually drawing the toughest defensive assignments. He also mentored 21-year-old partner Jiri Fischer. "He helps me every game, every practice," Fischer says. "He told me I needed to be a little more aggressive in the playoffs." If the 6'5", 228-pound Fischer develops into the next Chris Pronger, then that—and not becoming the oldest Norris winner ever—might be Chelios's signature accomplishment of the season.

"I did surprise myself this year," says Chelios. "The last few years, probably going back to the last two in Chicago, I didn't think I could play in the NHL at a level like I did at 25 or even 35. The reason I've done well this year is that I don't do it the same way. I've found a different angle."

That different angle is to play more like a classic defenseman—an apt role for Chelios. He is a classic player with a classic attitude who tools around the Motor City in a classic black 1964 Cadillac Eldorado convertible. The only new-age thing about him will be his 2002-03 salary, although talk of a contract extension, or his impending free agency, waits because he's playing for the big trophy. Chelios must take care of business before he takes care of business, keeping his eye on the fabulous Forsberg. No question, the doctor is in.