Even now that he is a Detroit Red Wing, Chris Chelios puts his
pants on one leg at a time--although one day last week he had to
do it twice. Picking at his fried eggs the morning after his
debut in a jersey that looked as incongruous on him as shoes on
a pig, Chelios was recalling how he had to put on his uniform a
second time because he was so jittery in front of his new
teammates that he had forgotten to remove a pair of gym shorts
the first time. "I never had felt that nervous before a game,"
says the 37-year-old Chelios, who also mistakenly put on his
elbow pads before his shoulder pads. "I felt like it was my
first game in the league."
If the most accomplished American-born hockey player of all time
had cold sweats about being a Red Wing, imagine how the rest of
the NHL felt. In an unprecedented six-hour trading frenzy on
March 23, Detroit general manager Ken Holland refocused the
playoff picture, taking the reeling two-time champions (Detroit
was 34-30-6 at the time) and turning them into a potential
Stanley Cup monster. There have been other trading deadline
makeovers in recent years--a nip here, a tuck there, a character
graft received by the New York Rangers in 1994--but nothing
involving a group of players of such stature. Holland began the
day intending to get a goal-scoring forward and a durable
defenseman, but as he noted, "We had a lot of lines in the
water." Then Moby Dick just sort of jumped into the rowboat.
For six draft choices and two marginal players, Holland procured
Chelios, defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, left wing Wendel Clark and
goalie Bill Ranford, a quartet that boasts a combined five
Stanley Cups, a Conn Smythe Trophy and three Norris Trophies. If
the earth didn't move in Dallas and Denver, home to the other
Western Conference powers, at least the odds did. One Internet
gambling service promptly dropped the odds on the Red Wings'
winning the Stanley Cup from 6 to 1, to 2 to 1, making them the
favorites over the 3-to-1 Stars, who at the time had the NHL's
best record (43-14-12) by far.
On Deadline Day the Red Wings left their morning practice buoyed
by the knowledge that Holland had gotten Clark, who has scored
more than 300 NHL goals, from the Tampa Bay Lightning for
third-string goalie Kevin Hodson and a draft pick; but the
subsequent deals for Chelios, the heart of the Chicago
Blackhawks, and the Rangers' Samuelsson, the personification of
nails scratching on a blackboard, stunned the Detroit players.
Word of the other trades spread like an urban legend. Center
Igor Larionov found out about them in a telephone call from a
friend, who said he had heard the news on the radio. Forward
Brendan Shanahan, who swears he never listens to sports talk
radio, listened to it in his car on the way home from that
practice and wound up spreading the word about Chelios to people
in a store where he had stopped to pick up a few things. The
Detroit players' phones kept ringing with details, confirmation,
comment, giddy disbelief. The next morning the entire team was
on the ice 15 minutes early for an optional 10:30 game-day
skate. Forwards Kris Draper and Joe Kocur went over to Holland
and shook his hand.
April 4, 1999
"This gave us our excitement back," Shanahan says. "We didn't
think two straight Stanley Cups would secure our place in
history. We know we need to win a third. But you have to
understand, we've played until June the last two years. We'd
lose a game this season, the other team would be celebrating on
the ice, and we'd be on a bus or a plane later that night
wondering if we would have been that excited if we had won.
Probably not. We were all looking forward to something like
this. A lot of teams could have done this, but our management
was the one that did. You have to play for today in this game.
You have to respect what might happen down the road, but
sometimes when you plan for the future, it never comes."
In Samuelsson and Ranford, Detroit has found only temporary
help. Holland calls the 35-year-old Samuelsson, an unrestricted
free agent who is expected to join the team in a week or so,
once his broken right foot mends, "a rental." As for the
32-year-old Ranford, whose play has been in decline over the
past three seasons, Holland says he's "an insurance policy" in
case his top two goalies, Chris Osgood and Norm Maracle, falter.
But Clark, 32, is auditioning for full-time work (he will earn
$1.8 million if Detroit picks up his option for 1999-2000), and
he had an auspicious beginning, scoring on a wrist shot in a 2-1
victory over the Buffalo Sabres, his first game as a Red Wing.
It wasn't exactly a whistling wrister from Clark's salad days in
Toronto; defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom's shot from the point
struck Clark on the wrist, hit the shaft of his stick and found
its way into the goal. "By summertime that one will have gone
top shelf," says Clark, who also scored the game-winning goal in
a 3-2 overtime victory against the Philadelphia Flyers on
Sunday. Those goals gave him 30 on the season, a statistic not
lost on Holland.
Chelios is the definite keeper. To get Chelios to waive his
no-trade handshake agreement he had with Blackhawks owner
William Wirtz, Holland had to tack on two years at $5.5 million
each beyond the $3.7 million the defenseman will earn next
season. Chelios, a Chicago native, said leaving his beloved
Blackhawks, for whom he had played the past nine years of his
16-year NHL career, was more about security than money.
Compulsively honest, Chelios said he would have gone to any of
the teams that pursued him--the Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes or
San Jose Sharks, in addition to the Red Wings if they had
extended his contract, a risk the Blackhawks were not willing to
When Chelios learned six days before the trading deadline that
Chicago veterans Bob Probert and Dave Manson were about to be
put on waivers, he called Wirtz's lawyer to ask about adding two
more years to his deal. "When I didn't hear back," Chelios says,
"I took it as a no." Word quickly spread that Chelios was
available. Detroit, which had been rebuffed in earlier attempts
to obtain him, offered Blackhawks general manager Bob Murray two
first-round draft picks and promising, albeit fleshy,
24-year-old defenseman Anders Eriksson; he also offered Chelios
an extension as well as a shot at a Cup. Done. An hour after the
trade Chelios tried to find a buyer for the building he owns
near the United Center on West Madison Street, which is also the
home of his restaurant, Cheli's Chili.
On the day of the trade Chelios turned on the television in his
Detroit hotel room and saw a four-month-old clip of himself
saying he would never play for the Red Wings. The notion of
going to his despised Central Division rival seemed preposterous
in December and was only slightly less so the first time he
walked into the Red Wings dressing room last week. In Detroit,
Chelios was basically a Toyota. Of course, the rugged Chelios is
reviled in most NHL rinks, but Joe Louis Arena is the only one
in which he has been hanged in effigy. He recalled three brawls
with Detroit captain Steve Yzerman, passionate wars against
grinders such as Draper, Martin Lapointe and Kirk Maltby, and
the $500 fine the league slapped him with in 1994 after he
slashed Sergei Fedorov. "Ah, I used to do everything to Sergei,"
Chelios says. "Those were the old days when you could elbow a
guy and not worry about getting suspended. I took advantage of
that." Chelios sounds wistful. "I can't believe I'm in the room.
They can't believe I'm in the room. But I think they're happy
about it, and maybe the fans will forgive me."
Apparently they have. Joe Louis Arena concessionaires sold a
combined 187 sweaters with Chelios's number 24 and Clark's 71
the night following the trades. Chelios played 25 minutes
against the Sabres and then a total of 49 in the next two games,
a 6-1 victory over Tampa Bay last Friday and that 3-2 win
against Philadelphia two days later. Seventy-four minutes in his
first three Wings games contrasts with the ridiculous 106 he
played in his last three matches as a Blackhawk and underscores
a reason Chelios should be even more effective in Detroit than
he was in Chicago. Because of their depth on the blue line and
the ability to spread out minutes, the Red Wings have been a
haven for older defensemen such as Mark Howe, Slava Fetisov,
Mike Ramsey, Bob Rouse and especially Larry Murphy, whose career
was reborn when he came from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a
deadline deal two years ago. "We're hockey's equivalent of
Viagra," says assistant coach Dave Lewis.
Their left wing lock also protects veteran defensemen better
than any system in the NHL. Not only do Detroit backliners
rarely face three-on-two or two-on-one rushes, but right-side
defensemen like Chelios are also spared the wear and tear of
moving diagonally to the left corner to retrieve a puck on an
opposing dump-in, as they would do in most defensive systems.
(In the Wings' lock, that is the left wing's responsibility.)
"It gives you more freedom to join the rush," Chelios says. "A
couple of times against Buffalo, I started going [to the left
corner] for the puck before I remembered. In the breakout
Detroit uses with the center, I'm supposed to jump into the
play, and I kept forgetting to do that, too. In Chicago it was
all move [the puck from defenseman to defenseman] and fire it up
the boards. Now I've got to look for guys in the right spot and
Against Buffalo, Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman played Chelios
with Lidstrom, although in the final minute of a one-goal game,
the minutes that have defined Chelios's career, he used Murphy
with Lidstrom. With Chelios, Lidstrom and Murphy--Bowman likened
them to the Big 3 of Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy
Lapointe that he coached in Montreal's dynastic days of the late
1970s--the coach has plenty of options.
A fourth Norris next year for Chelios is not impossible,
although the odds will be a lot higher than 2 to 1. He still
moves brilliantly, pivoting and shifting his posture from
offense to defense as quickly as anyone. He still can pass
tape-to-tape. He still is conscientious without the puck; on a
Chicago team that had allowed the third-most goals in the NHL,
Chelios, despite averaging 27 minutes a game, was only -4.
In the unlikely event that the world doesn't end in 2000, and
Chelios as a Red Wing can be construed as a sign the apocalypse
is upon us, the Wings should continue as an NHL power for at
least a few years, despite Holland's seeming indifference to the
future. "We know some day we're going to fall," Holland says.
"When you never get a top 10 draft pick, you will eventually be
pulled down. But we said, Let's look back five years from now
and say that we did everything we could to win a third Cup, that
we maxed out, that we gave ourselves the best possible chance,
even if some of these moves are for this year only. We didn't do
anything totally stupid"--the financial commitment is $15.2
million for Chelios and about $1 million combined for the other
three--"and we feel we've upgraded our team on paper. Now we
have to see on the ice."
"You have to play for today. Sometimes when you plan for the
future, it never comes."
After the deals, the odds on the Red Wings' winning the Cup
dropped from 6 to 1 to 2 to 1.