DADDY DEAREST

Award-winning Chris Chelios of Montreal is a nasty cuss on the ice, but playing the role of a parent has helped him develop a softer side
January 08, 1990

If Dean Chelios could understand all the things that have been said about his father, he would be outraged. For now, however, he is comfortably ensconced in Daddy's arms and only mildly curious about the flashbulb going off in his face. Dean is having his picture taken in a restaurant inside the Montreal Forum, where at the age of five months he is already one of the regulars.

The Kid, as Dean is called by his father, Chris, goes most everywhere with his old man. "I don't sleep late in the mornings," says Chris, the Canadiens' star defenseman, "and he's always in such a good mood then. So I'm up with him and take him out for a walk and then over to the rink. There's always somebody who will hold him during practice later in the morning."

The Forum is not far from the Chelios home in Westmount, a section of Montreal that features shade trees and well-kept old brick houses and looks unlike the kind of place a young, $800,000-a-year hockey player would want to call home. "I love to be close to the rink," says Chelios. "I live for hockey, and I can jog over there in 10 minutes if I want to work out. If I moved out to the West Island [a trendy suburb where most of his teammates live], I'm scared I'd get lazy."

Of all the things Chelios, 27, has been called, lazy is not among them. Even his critics, of which there are many, and his enemies, of which there may be almost as many, have never failed to acknowledge the talent that won him the Norris Trophy last season as the NHL's best defenseman. He possesses all the requisite skills—a low, heavy shot off a quick release, a mobility that enables him to move up into the offense and a willingness to take a good hard shoulder.

Throughout his career he also has been known as a borderline dirty player—not a thug exactly but a guy who likes to use his stick and his elbows on others. What's more, he has a reputation for carousing into the wee hours in a city known for such pursuits. All the more wonder then that the defenseman of the year has suddenly turned into the father of the year.

"Chris is a very caring person," says an old friend, right wing Chris Nilan, who was traded from the Canadiens to the New York Rangers in 1988. "He's the kind of guy who always calls old friends he played with. He'd do anything for you."

Chelios even does diapers. "The Kid has changed me," he says. "You know when I realized I wasn't 21 or 22 anymore? The other night when I was at [teammate and former late-night running mate] Petr Svoboda's house and we were both feeding our babies. You can't get up and just leave [your responsibilities] anymore, but I had my fun. I'd just as soon have five kids and run around all day with them."

In those years in which Montreal fails to win the Stanley Cup, so great is the civic disappointment that most of the Canadiens leave town quickly. Montreal doesn't much care for losing hockey teams. If you're a player, it's best to pack up and get out of town until the heat dies down.

The season before last, less than 36 hours after the Boston Bruins eliminated the Canadiens in the second round of the playoffs, Chelios and his wife, Tracee, were in an airport cab before dawn, leaving Montreal on their way to a vacation in Florida. They were thinking how smart they were to be making a getaway without being seen, when the driver recognized Chris and held up a copy of one of the local newspapers. "Chelios!" he said. "It says here, you are going to be traded. Packed light, didn't you?"

"The obsession here with the Canadiens is unbelievable," says Chelios, who is in his sixth full season with the team. "I'm stopped at a red light one day, and I see this drunk stagger, fall and cut his head open on the cement. I get out of the car and help the guy up. He opens his eyes, looks at me and says, 'Chelios!' I mean, holy smokes, everybody knows you."

But Chelios's problems go way beyond being recognized everywhere in town or being held to Montreal's unusually exacting hockey standards. He has a history of finding trouble, and trouble has a way of finding him. Last season, for instance, Terry O'Reilly, who was the coach of the Bruins at the time and was charged with naming the 14 nonstarters to the Wales Conference roster for the All-Star Game, excluded Chelios, citing dirty play. "I have no respect for him," said O'Reilly.

In Game 1 of the 1989 conference finals against the Philadelphia Flyers, an unnecessarily hard elbow by Chelios drove left wing Brian Propp's head into a metal joining brace in the glass. Propp fell to the ice unconscious. With 1:37 left in Game 6, which would be the series finale, Flyer goaltender Ron Hextall took revenge on Chelios by skating far from his net and clubbing him atop the head with his blocker, the hard glove goalies wear on their stick hand.

Ever the hard-nose, Chelios was neither hurt by the attack nor guilt-stricken over what he had done to Propp, who was hospitalized overnight. "I know I elbowed him, but I get elbowed all the time," says Chelios. "I'm sorry he got hurt, but if he hit his head on the metal, that's just bad luck. I know I'm chippy, but that's when I'm most effective."

Chelios's off-the-ice behavior also has brought him grief. He has been known to spend long hours pub crawling with his teammates. "I love to go out with the guys," he says—and yes, he has "used bad judgment more than once."

One of those occasions may have been when he was involved in an incident two days before the first game of the 1988 playoffs. Three weeks later, the Montreal Gazette ran a sketchy account of a postcurfew car accident allegedly involving Chelios, two teammates and two women. No players" names appear on police reports of any accidents, however.

"Something happened," says Chelios, "but there was no accident and no curfew-breaking. I'm not going to talk about it because other guys were involved. But it was all exaggerated. I didn't even get in trouble with the coach [Jean Perron, who later resigned]."

Chelios considers accounts of his carousing unfair. "Reading about how I'm a dirty player is one thing," he says, "but when it gets personal and starts to affect Tracee, it's not right. Every year there's something new about me. Last year I was supposed to have been in a bar fight. I was out with Tracee that night. I wish I had 10 hours of television time to explain how I feel and what kind of person I am."

Tracee, who met Chelios at a fraternity party in 1981 while they were students at Wisconsin, says her husband's swarthy Greek features may account for some of his notoriety. "He's a nice guy and a sweet person," she says, "but he doesn't look like the boy next door. He has a rough look about him. He looks like trouble.

"It gets tense between us sometimes," continues Tracee, referring to rumors of his escapades, "but that's because we both get so frustrated with it. It seems like if you're not involved in Bible study or something like that, they [the media] see you as a wild, reckless person who goes out every night and smashes bar chairs."

When Chris says he would like to have five kids, Tracee, who married Chelios in 1987, sighs and reminds him that she has only so many child-bearing years. Dean, however, is the kind of kid who inspires large families. He didn't protest as he was bundled up for a ride in his parents' Bronco to Milos, a local restaurant, on a snowy Sunday afternoon last month.

It was a day suited to dinner in one's own dining room, but neither baby nor tabloid rumors nor a home loss the night before to the Hartford Whalers could keep the Cheiloses inside the house.

"By now we figure the hell with what anybody says, so we just go out," says Tracee. The waiters at the restaurant, who snapped to attention and brought over a sampler of appetizers, applauded Chelios. "It's tough," one waiter said to him consolingly. "You have to fight for everybody on the team."

Fighting was the least of the skills Chelios consistently demonstrated last season, when he led the Canadiens to the Stanley Cup finals, which they lost in six games to the Calgary Flames. Besides being the catalyst on the power play and the man the Canadiens depended on to bring the puck out of the defensive zone, Chelios had 73 points on 15 goals and 58 assists.

This season a decrease in Chelios's scoring has fueled speculation that the departures of veteran defensemen Larry Robinson (to the Los Angeles Kings) and Rick Green (to retirement) have caused Chelios to play more cautiously and therefore not as effectively. Through the Canadiens' 6-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers last Friday, he had eight goals and 19 assists. Montreal coach Pat Burns, whose emphasis on defense and teamwork in 1988-89 helped eliminate wild fluctuations from Chelios's game, says he isn't worried.

"Most of the time the people on the streets treat you great, but you get into the Forum and the fans panic more than we do," says Chelios. "In bars they poke their finger right in your chest and tell you how lousy you're playing. My first few years here, I might have thrown the guy down the steps. I'm lucky I never hurt anybody.

"As frustrating as it gets sometimes, this is still a great place to play. I know that if I weren't on a team like Montreal, which doesn't have selfish guys, there's no way I would have had the success I've had."

In fact, Chelios is happy to be playing hockey anywhere. "When I think about where I've come from, I can't believe all I have," he says. "I could still be in the kitchen working for my father."

His dad, Constantine, who like many Greek immigrants of the 1950s became known as Gus, bought, operated and sold six restaurants in the Chicago area. "My dad is unbelievably full of life," says Chelios. "He always has another idea."

The oldest of five children, Chris learned to play Greek music on the clarinet. Not only did he have the talent for the clarinet, but he also had the look of a clarinetist. "Glasses, braces, skinny," says Chris. "I made first chair."

Conflict followed him even when he was a kid. One year his junior high school band had a major concert the same weekend his youth hockey team was to play in a big tournament. Chris's mother, Susan, lied to the band director, telling him that Chris could not perform because he was ill. The next week, however, Chris let it slip in school that he had competed in the hockey tournament. When word got back to the band director, he confronted Chris in front of the entire group and asked him about his priorities. Chris answered by walking out of the practice room. He didn't pick up a musical instrument again until he bought a saxophone last year.

Chris, his three sisters and his brother all helped out in their father's restaurants, which explains why Tracee had perfect eggs on her plate on a recent morning. "Chris is a neat freak like his dad," she said. But when it came time for hockey practice, Gus always let the pots and pans sit.

"Our Greek friends made fun of Gus, because he allowed his sons to waste time with sports," says Susan. "He said, 'You make all the money you want in your restaurants. I'm going to have fun with my boys.' "

In 1977, Gus visited an old Army acquaintance in San Diego, found a restaurant opportunity and sent for the family. Chris participated in San Diego's youth hockey program, but the competition was second-rate. Then 15, Chris joined a senior team made up of Marines who played one game a week, but he knew he was falling behind players his age in other areas of the U.S and Canada.

One of his old Chicago friends heard of an opening on a junior B team in Hawkesbury, Ont., 30 miles from Montreal. So early in his senior year of high school, Chris caught a bus across the continent. When he was cut after one game, he tried out for another team, in Chatham, Ont. When that club let him go, Chris wound up at the Detroit bus station, out of money and begging the ticket clerk to allow him to mail him the fare after he got home.

"Two brothers overheard me and loaned me the money," says Chelios. "They were two funny guys with their teeth all rotted out—I'll never forget what they looked like. I lay in the luggage rack listening to their story the whole way to Utah, where they got off. Their claim to fame was that they owned the farm where Lynyrd Skynyrd's plane crashed. I sent them the money later. Man, was I glad to get home."

U.S. International University in San Diego had started a hockey program in 1978. Chelios failed to make the team as a freshman walk-on in 1979 but eventually hooked on with a junior B team in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

In 1981 he was recruited by Wisconsin and drafted in the second round by the Canadiens. At Wisconsin he was selected as a Western Collegiate Hockey Association all-star in '82-83, scoring 26 points in 26 games. After that, Chelios played on the U.S. team in the 1984 Winter Olympics. That March he found himself in a Canadiens uniform, against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. "I was lined up across from James Patrick, whom I had played against at Moose Jaw, then when he was at the University of North Dakota, and then when he played for the Canadian Olympic Team. We were thinking the same thing, because we had these big grins on our faces. I was like a 10-year-old."

"My Chris is more quiet than me, but just as determined," says Gus. "I bought our first restaurant in San Diego because it was near the rink for Chris. Then a shopping center and more restaurants came, and we lost everything. It was pretty bad, but we are a close family, and we didn't give up. It took two years before we had the money to buy another one, but we supported Chris in his hockey, and he worked in gas stations and restaurants to bring in what he could. Nothing comes easy, but the kids learned what life is all about."

More recently, Chelios seems to have learned that it is also about accepting responsibility. "I'd like to have a reputation as a good person, the kind who is good to people and they're good back to you," he says. "Off the ice, that is."

PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINETime at home gives Chelios a respite from the stress of being a Canadien. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOChelios's scoring is off this season, but his low shot from the point is still eye-catching. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOFlyer fans were hopping mad in the '89 playoffs. PHOTOBRAD TRENT/OUTLINELast year a mellower Chelios picked up an instrument for the first time since junior high.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)