Pay no attention to the coaching sweat suit. Chris Chelios still considers himself to be very much a player.
Despite his role as a special assistant coach at the U.S. Olympic Orientation Camp this week at the Seven Bridges Arena in suburban Chicago, Chelios is using the three-day camp as a means to get a little extra ice time while he continues to beat the bushes in search of a team that could use his quarter century of NHL experience.
And he won’t stop after he’s knocked on the doors of 30 NHL teams. He’ll just broaden his search. Either way, Captain America is not ready to hang up his competitive skates.
“I'm going to play somewhere at the beginning of the year – whether it's the minors or Europe,” said the 47-year-old who was doing sprints with the young players toward the end of Monday’s practices.
“I have every intention of playing somewhere at the beginning of the year. Hopefully it's in the NHL, but if not, we'll see what happens.”
With NHL general managers Brian Burke and David Poile in the house, as well as three NHL head coaches in the dressing room, Chelios is picking his spots to lobby for a roster spot before training camps open in a couple of weeks.
“You have Chelli pull you aside and say ‘do you guys have room in Toronto? You can use a veteran defenseman. Any American coach would love to have a guy like me.’ He’s even saying, ‘Is there any way I can make this team?’ ” said Wilson in reference to the U.S. Olympic Team.
Chelios was limited to 28 games last season and had no points and a plus-1 rating. He suited up for only six playoff games as the Red Wings lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup finals, and was not re-signed after the season.
In 25 NHL seasons, Chelios has 185 goals and 763 assists in 1,644 games, but statistics don’t scratch the surface of his role in the locker room and on the ice. He has captained numerous U.S. teams and been the consummate professional.
“You can make an argument that he’s the greatest American player of all time,” said Wilson, who coached Chelios in the 1996 and 2004 World Cups of Hockey as well as the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
“Chris has been in every one of those battles. He’s a true warrior. When a player sees Chelli I want him to go up and talk to him and get him all fired up and focused of what’s about to happen.”
With an average age of 26.2, many on the U.S. roster are young enough to pass for Chelios’ kid. For Mike Modano, who has been through the international wars with Chelios, from three Olympics to two World Cups.
“He’s been there for so long and did so much and he’s experienced a lot of things,” said Modano, the oldest player on the U.S. roster at 38. “He has tons of experience and tons of information that he can pass on to the young guys as to how to play the game. He played the game at a high level for so long. If I was a young defenseman I’d be wearing him out with questions.”
And that’s exactly what many of the young defensemen are doing.
“It is just great to have him out there to pick his brain. His presence on the ice was invaluable,” said Jack Johnson, 22, who grew up dreaming his was Chelios playing street hockey.
As the final practice ended early Wednesday afternoon, the players and coaches filed off the ice and into the long corridor that connected the dressing rooms. The players filed to the right while the coaches peeled off to the left. There’s a momentary pause as Chelios comes to proverbial fork in the road before following the other coaches down the hall.
“It's awkward, it really is,” said the man who epitomizes what many consider USA Hockey’s greatest generation. "I still consider myself a player.”
Old habits are hard to break.