Saturday, May 30, 2015

Chris Chelios Swatch Card

Guess which team I'm rooting for tonight, as the Chicago Blackhawks take on the Anaheim Ducks in Game 7 of the Western Conference Finals for the right to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Finals? (Yes, I'm rooting for the Hawks, but my head is telling me the Ducks will win).

The Hawks are an Original Six franchise, meaning they are one of six remaining teams - along with the Montréal Canadiens, Detroit Red Wings, Boston Bruins, New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs - from before the 1967 expansion, which added the California Seals, Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota North Stars, St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers to the fold.

Two things folks should know about this: First, the Original Six are not the founding teams of the NHL. Only the Habs and Leafs (then known as the Arenas) date back to the NHL's inaugural season in 1917-18 (and the Habs were already 10 years old at the time) - the league also had the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Wanderers playing games, and the Québec Bulldogs were technically part of the league but not ready to play yet, so they started the following season, with their players dispersed throughout the league for the first year.

Secondly, what is now known as the current Philadelphia NHL team was pretty much always going to join the league, expansion or not. For many reasons - including the fact that they were the first expansion team to win a Stanley Cup - I consider them the Seventh Original Six franchise, because the team's owners had secured the ownership rights of the Montréal Maroons (active 1935-38), a Cup-winning franchise that shared an arena with the Habs as a sister/nemesis team, the Habs representing the French-speaking/underdog/defeated/colonized/workers side of the city, and the Maroons representing the English-speaking/England-friendly/invaders/conquerors/owners. The Maroons franchise had run into financial problems with World War II and the Great Depression, but was always welcome back into the fold if they could get their act together, so when a Philly group purchased the rights to the team, it became a matter of time before the NHL would once again operate in the City Of Brotherly Love (after the Philadelphia Quakers abandoned after one season in 1930-31).

As part of the Original Six (having joined the league in 1926, roughly a decade into the NHL's existence), the Hawks have a relatively rich history with five Stanley Cups (two of them coming in the past five years) and numerous Hall of Famers, but also a lot of years of futility. They were often at the bottom of the standings in the six-team era alongside the Rangers, as well as in the 1980s and 90s, despite having had the likes of Glenn Hall, Stan Mikita, Pierre Pilote, Tony Esposito, Bobby Hull, Denis Savard, Jack Stewart, Chris Chelios, Steve Larmer and Ed Belfour. Many of their current-day critics attribute their depth and talent to having ''tanked', (or, in my opinion, merely ''bombed'') to draft the likes of Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane.

Which brings me to hometown hero Chelios, who captained the team for four seasons and won the Cup with two other Original Six teams (the Habs and Wings), but not in Chicago.

Originally a second-round (40th overall) pick of the Canadiens in 1981, Chelios won the Cup with the surprising and amazing 1986 team, which had a great mix of veteran Hall Of Famers (Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson), rookies who would become Hall Of Famers (Patrick Roy), young guys who should now be in the Hall (Guy Carbonneau, Claude Lemieux, some might even add Bobby Smith to that list though I'd be content with the first two), rookies who went on to have storied careers (Stéphane Richer, Mats Naslund), and great role players (Mario Tremblay, Mike McPhee, Chris Nilan, Gaston Gingras, Petr Svoboda, Sergio Momesso, Rick Green, Craig Ludwig, and enforcer John Kordic).

He won the Norris Trophy after the 1988-89 season, leading the Habs to the Presidents' trophy and the Stanley Cup Finals, but by the turn of the 1990s, team physicians were concerned about his recurring knee injuries first and foremost, and ''active lifestyle'' (lots of drinking, late-night partying, and fun time with the ladies) as well, and told GM Serge Savard that if he could find a decent deal for him, he should take it before his value goes down or he's forced to retire at a young age. Which Serge Savard did, for Hawks superstar and Montréal boy Denis Savard, and because Chelios went on to play until he was 48, it is generally seen as one of the 5 worst trades in Habs history, oftentimes as the single worst one; I'll go deeper in it in the next few days, but for now, let's just say I disagree with that statement, though I would have loved to get to witness the next, say, 15 years of Chelly's career in my city.

Because Chelios did continue to play. And play well. He won two more Norris Trophies (with three more finalist nods), two more Cups, played in 9 more All-Star Games (including one in Montréal in 1993 during which he and Hawks teammate Belfour were hilariously hungover) to add to the two as a Hab, four additional end-of-season First All-Star Team nods (to the one he got in 1988-89) and two Second All-Star Team nods, a World Cup championship with Team USA won at the then-Molson Centre, a silver medal at the 2002 Olympics, and captaining the American team four times - once in a stint that didn't end up going well off the ice (Nagano).

The man was a physical beast. He had the most arduous training habits seen thus far - way tougher than CrossFit, though in the same vein: he'd use his stationary bike for hours at top speed, in his sauna, among other training techniques. That's why he was able to play at a high level for so long and was the athlete that he was.

On the other hand, he acted like a Chicago mobster at times, threatening commissioner Gary Bettman's life during one lock-out, going against union heads at another, and while he may not have been as overly dirty as Mark Messier, Ulf Samuelsson, Bryan Marchment or Gary Suter, you did not want to get on his bad side because it was going to hurt.

So far, the hockey community has chosen to let his talent and achievements wash over his transgressions - in my opinion, deservedly so, but it's a debate I'm glad I did have in my own mind. I talked about how I viewed him in the top-5 or top-10 of all time about a month and a half ago, and that still stands and will until another suitor is actually worth reconsidering for, which may or may not happen in my lifetime.

So, in my first official Chelios post, here he is wearing the Hawks' classic red (then-away) uniform, from Panini's 2013-14 Totally Certified set, card #TC-CCH of the Red ''regular'' Jersey sub-set, with a white game-worn swatch inserted:
Chelios. In red. With the captain's ''C''. This whole card just fits.

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