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

May 26, 2002

Having lost his spleen during the 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.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO LEADING THE CHARGE Chelios had been a stay-at-home defenseman of late but no backliner had more playoff points at week's end. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO MARKED MAN Forsberg (above), the postseason's best forward, is being shadowed closely by Chelios.