Be mean to outsiders. Be nice to insiders. And cheat whenever possible. Biologist Lyall Watson’s rules for genetic survival could also be interpreted as the laws of hockey according to Chris Chelios.
Beloved by teammates, reviled by opponents, but respected by all. That was the Chelios mantra. When you learn who his childhood hero was, it’s not surprising.
Chelios grew up in Chicago watching intently as a Second City legend took no prisoners.
Bobby Hull? Stan Mikita? Moose Vasko?
Nope. Wrong sport. Hockey Hall of Famer Chelios patterned his abrasive and intense style after a childhood gridiron hero.
“The Chicago Bears had a linebacker by the name of Dick Butkus,” Chelios said. “He was the toughest, meanest, nastiest competitor I’ve ever seen. Every kid on the south side of Chicago wanted to be like Dick Butkus.
“I tried to play hockey the way Dick Butkus played football.”
Only the foolish would suggest he didn’t.
Chicago Bears middle linebacker Butkus was a menacing, terrorizing presence on a football field. He struck fear into opponents, punishing them at every opportunity. Chelios brought the same style of game to the ice.
“He was a warrior,” said former NHL defenseman Craig Hartsburg, who coached Chelios with the Chicago Blackhawks. “He played every shift as if it was his last. In my mind, he was the best defensive defenceman in the league.”
The Bears weren’t a great team when Butkus was the star of their defense but they earned a reputation as a tough opponent. You might beat the Bears but they never gave up. They just kept coming.
Chelios also took that approach in his days trying to make it to the NHL.
“Mine is comical,” Chelios explained of his journey to the NHL. “Not so much at what I accomplished, but the path I took to get there.”
Chelios was cut by Ontario junior B teams in Hawkesbury and Chatham before he found a spot with Moose Jaw of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
That led to a scholarship offer from Wisconsin, a spot on the 1984 U.S. Olympic team and eventually, an astonishing 26-season NHL career with the Montreal Canadiens, Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Atlanta Thrashers that saw him win three Stanley Cups, three Norris Trophies.