Adoration and Animosity Greet Chris Chelios Return To The Chicago Blackhawks

Chris Chelios has returned home to the team he grew up idolizing, the Chicago Blackhawks. He recently announced he was resigning from the Detroit Red Wings to be closer to his family in Chicago. After his announcement, the Chicago Blackhawks made him an offer to be one of their team Ambassadors. He is joining Blackhawks legends Denis SavardStan Mikita and the “Golden Jet” Bobby Hull

Chris Chelios Returns To The Chicago Blackhawks

Unlike the extremely warm welcome extended to Savard, Mikita, and Hull as Ambassadors, Chris Chelios may still have issues with many fans of the team. Actually, it is many of the fans who may have continuing issues with the former captain of the Blackhawks. In order to examine this dilemma, we need a trip down memory lane.

Chris Chelios The Player

Chris Chelios as a player left his mark on the NHL with the way he played the game. He played with passion, grit, devotion to his teammates, and was one of the hardest defencemen to play against. Chelios could do it all; he could score, defend, and when called upon drop the gloves. 

When it came to on-ice antics Chelios was second to none. If there was a scrum on the ice, it involved Chelios. Any extra stick work after the whistle, it involved Chelios. If there were face washes going on after the whistle, they were usually started by Chelios.

Chris Chelios Over The Line 

As an example of his mean streak leading to a dirty hit, you have to go back to May 1989. In game one of the playoff series between the Montreal Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers, Chris Chelios delivered a vicious elbow to the head of Brian Propp. The hit was not penalized and would leave Propp laying unconscious on the ice bleeding from the back of his head. Propp ended up missing game two of the series due to the injury. 

The Flyers would never recover and lose the series in six games. Before the final buzzer in game six, Flyers goalie Ron Hextall would exact revenge on Chelios in one of the more blatant attacks ever by a goalie. With a little over a minute to go, Chelios entered the zone with the puck and off went Hextall to meet him. Click here to view the attack and melee that followed. The NHL would suspend Hextall for 12 games for the incident

This kind of emotional response from an opponent was exactly what Chelios would bring out from teams night in and night out when playing. He was the type of player that fans would boo relentlessly as he went about his business on the ice. Chelios revelled in being the ultimate bad guy in the eyes of opponents and their fans. He took the abuse from fans in every arena in the NHL and enjoyed every minute of it. He was hockey’s version of Ric Flair who everybody hated but wanted on their team because he was just that good.

Chris Chelios The Blackhawk 

Chris Chelios became a Blackhawk in June 1990. The Blackhawks traded their high scoring machine Denis Savard for Chris Chelios and future considerations. It was a trade that broke the hearts of many Blackhawk fans who hated to see Savard go to another team. 

The trade was touted by the Blackhawks as the piece needed to put them over the top in the race for the Stanley Cup. They had just lost the Western Conference Finals to the Edmonton Oilers in six games. Coach Mike Keenan stated after the Chelios trade that they could have used him in the series against the Oilers. Keenan felt Chelios was the type of player needed to “take care” of Mark Messier who had elbowed Savard in game six leaving him in a pile on the bench trying to recover. Chelios was the type of player Keenan cherished, tough and willing to do whatever it took to win.   

Chris Chelios would go on to a glorious career with the Chicago Blackhawks. He spent nearly nine seasons with the Blackhawks and holds numerous team records for defencemen including the Blackhawks team record for most career penalty minutes with 1495. He was a warrior, a local boy playing for his favourite team, and a Blackhawk fans favourite.   

Chris Chelios The “Traitor”

Chelios had it all in Chicago except a chance to get a Stanley Cup. The only season close was when the Blackhawks made it to the Cup final and lost in four straight to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991-92. Starting in the 1997-98 season it became apparent the Blackhawks were on a downturn. They were under .500 that season and did not make the playoffs. They began to move out players in a franchise rebuild looking toward the future. It’s at this point that Chris Chelios begins his transition from hero to goat. 

Chelios was watching his team go into a rebuild and soon wanted out, or a contract extension. There are many versions of what happened between Chelios and Blackhawks general manager Bob Murray when discussing an extension. To add intrigue, Chelios also indicated he had a handshake no-trade clause with owner Bill Wirtz

For more on the trade as it unfolded. check out this from Mike Imren of the Daily Herald on March 10, 1999:

“Chelios warmed to a trade only after realizing the Blackhawks wouldn’t extend his contract, which was really where his loyalty resided. His agent covertly tried to broker a deal to a team that would give his client more years and more money, and the defending champion Red Wings obliged.”   

Here’s another take on the trade as written by local hockey legend Tim Sassone entitled“Chelios Earns His Wings. Hawks captain says show me the money; team shows him the door.” 

Sassone writes: “Chelios forced the deal after once more asking the Hawks for a contract extension past next season and being told no.”

Chris Chelios The Red Wing

After forcing the Blackhawks hand to trade him, he was then a Red Wing. This was by far the most infuriating thing to accept for many Blackhawks fans. After being quoted numerous times “that he would never play for the Detroit Red Wings because he hated them too much” he had his agent work out a deal with the Blackhawks most bitter rival. 

The player that was cherished so much for what he did wearing the Blackhawks jersey was considered a “Cup chaser”, a sellout, and a traitor to many in his hometown. His comments that “I have to make the fans like me. They’re Red Wing fans and I’m a Red Wing now. I think they’ll learn to like it” only added salt to the Blackhawks fans wounds. Watching Chelios play against the Blackhawks was tough to watch for many, but especially those who felt he let them down. 

When the Blackhawks had a Heritage night in his honour in December 2010, his speech to the hometown crowd was filled with boos from those still angry with Chelios. As described by Tim Sassone

“I’ve been booed before and I understand the whole Detroit-Chicago thing and I know I said I’d never play for Detroit, but things change quickly,” Chelios said. 

“Chelios said he meant it at the time when he once said he would never play for the hated Red Wings, but that’s where he wanted to go in 1999 when he asked the Hawks for a trade during a contract dispute. ‘I really hated them just like everybody else in Chicago,’ Chelios said.”  

Chris Chelios A Blackhawk Again

Fast forward to this week and the upcoming Blackhawks fan convention where they will be introducing Chris Chelios as a Blackhawks Ambassador on Friday. Chelios will have the chance to face the Blackhawk faithful in person for the first time since returning. It’s sure to be a welcoming crowd made up many newer fans and children who are all too young to remember the bitter breakup involving Chelios and the Blackhawks. The ultimate test for Chelios will be his first introduction at the United Center in front of the home crowd. There may be some resentment still present that night. It may not be enough to drown out the cheers, but it will be there and he’ll know it.     

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