The 2018 U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team will of course include Chris Chelios. It’s an Olympic law or something.
Because no American player has worn the red, white and blue sweater more than the four Olympics in which Chelios has participated.
Because no American player has captained more than the three U.S. Olympic hockey teams on which we saw the old man and the C, either.
Because this is what you expect from a guy who played more NHL games than any other defenseman. Chelios shows up and shows up and shows up.
Difference this time in Pyeongchang, South Korea, is Chelios will be behind the bench instead of on it. The Chicago native will be coaching as an assistant to Tony Granato, a former Olympian and four-time 30-goal scorer in the NHL whose day job is to coach the men’s hockey team at Wisconsin, his and Chelios’ alma mater.
“Whenever you get a chance to represent your country, you do it,” Chelios said by phone recently. “I do, anyway. I think it’s great.”
Granato and former Team USA GM Jim Johannson offered Chelios this chance, a Badgers hockey sleeper cell awakening before taking a tragic turn last month.
Johannson died in his sleep Jan. 21. He was 53, 3 years younger than Chelios. The pair played together on Wisconsin’s 1982-83 national championship team.
“It was terrible,” Chelios said. “He was the kind of guy everybody loved. He had to cut players, but nobody disliked him.”
Coaching would be one way for Chelios to stay involved in a game that he seemingly has refused to leave, and you can understand why. Almost 40 years ago, he was cut by two junior B teams in Canada and had to scrounge for money to get back to the States.
No wonder he played in the NHL until he was 48 – and played as if he would have to scrounge for money again to get home.
Chelios once said he feared losing more than he enjoyed winning, and it seems obvious where that mindset began. Whatever works, right? And that worked in a glorious way for Chelios. That smallish kid rejected on the snowy prairies of Canada would grow up to become the greatest U.S.-born player, win three Stanley Cups with Montreal and Detroit, captain his hometown Blackhawks, and ascend to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Coaching was the only next step, and that step wasn’t much of a surprise to Hawks senior adviser Scotty Bowman, who coached against Chelios and later had him in his dressing room in Detroit.
“You could see he was such an intelligent player,” Bowman said. “He was confident and calm, but also had a lot of smarts.
“You can’t play like he did and not have extra knowledge. It’s a matter of translating that to your players.”
Chelios previously worked behind U.S. benches at the Deutschland Cup and World Junior Hockey Championships, helping lead the Yanks to a bronze medal at the 2016 world juniors. He has also worked in player development for the Red Wings, and quickly learned that as much as he loves the NHL, he wouldn’t love coaching in the NHL.
“I couldn’t imagine doing this in the NHL, because it’s 82 games,” Chelios said. “That’s a grind. I don’t know if I’d want to do that. I’ve been offered NHL assistant jobs, but I just couldn’t commit to the 82 games and that kind of schedule right now. I like my free time. I like seeing my kids play – my daughter [Tara] plays lacrosse [for Northwestern], Jake plays for Charlotte in the AHL. I wish he’d get more of a chance. I have thought about coaching him. It’d be buses [in the minors], but I think he should get a chance.”
As a player, Chelios was emotional. A face wash here, a two-hander across the ankles there – yes, Chelios the player would respond to seemingly every slight that Chelios the coach learned he cannot brook.
“You can’t get caught up in the game,” Chelios said of the biggest difference between lacing up Bauers and Cole Haans. “That’s what I did as a player. That’s the way I played. As a coach, you learn to keep calm and realize the decisions you have to make. You can’t get caught up in the emotional part of it.
“I’ve also learned you can’t treat everybody the same. I saw coaches do that. I don’t think you can. Every player’s different. It’s like your kids. You don’t treat your kids the same way.”
The NHL elected to skip the 2018 Games, leaving countries to cobble together teams of amateurs and former pros, a roster makeup that is closer to Chelios’ 1984 team – when the Olympics featured amateurs, quote-unquote when it came to the Soviets – than teams of the last two decades.
“We have some pros, like Brian Gionta, some guys who played in the NHL and maybe were too small to last but played in Europe,” Chelios said. “In ’84, we were all amateurs. We had two guys from the 1980 team, John Harrington and Phil Verchota, but the rest of us were inexperienced.”
Ah, yes, the 1980 team. Chelios was on the squad that traveled to Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, 4 years later, with the burden of defending the impossible, the gold medal known as the “Miracle on Ice.” One of Chelios’ teammates was future Hawks first-round draft choice Eddie Olczyk, who skated on what was called the “Diaper Line.” The ’84 team was young and inexperienced – and out of miracles.
“We were treated great,” Chelios said of his team that went 2-2-2 and failed to medal. “Everything was first-class. We had high hopes, but it didn’t come out that way.”
Chelios’ next three Olympics starred NHL players on every team – he won his only medal in 2002, a silver – and while the rosters changed dramatically, the most important lesson in such tournaments has not.
“Urgency early,” Chelios said. “Definitely need urgency early. I’ve found if you start well, you’re going to do well in any tournament. It’s easy to lose three or four games quickly, and you’re out.”
You know where there’s urgency? In the fear of losing and having to scrounge for money to get back home from South Korea.