Editor’s Note: After the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, Chris Chelios announced to a small group of reporters in the U.S. locker room at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., that he was hanging up his competitive skates. Several weeks later, he changed his mind and played another five seasons, including captaining the U.S. Olympic Team for the fourth and final time at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games in Torino, Italy. In the wake of ‘Captain America’s” retirement announcement on Aug. 30, we have unearthed and dusted off this story that was never published in USA Hockey Magazine.
If comic book endings really did come true, Captain America would fly off into the sunset clutching the World Cup of Hockey in his hands.
Instead, there stood Chris Chelios standing in front of a pack of reporters in the USA locker room, explaining how his team would not be flying to Toronto to defend its World Cup title.
There were no excuses for a 2-1 loss to Finland, and no attempts to sugar coat how the U.S. Team could surrender only 12 shots and a third-period lead on a horrendous defensive zone breakdown that led to the winning goal.
“We stuck to our system,” said Chelios, who was not on the ice for either Finland goal. “The guys worked hard, but sometimes it takes a great individual play or a missed check. We just came up short.”
Chris Chelios By The Numbers
-Wore the Team USA jersey 11 times:
And then came the words U.S. hockey fans have been dreading to hear.
“I’m done now,” Chelios said without a hint of emotion in his voice.
“It’s been great playing with these guys. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about. We got beat by a great team. We played hard. We’ve come a long way.”
And so it seemed that Chelios had played in his 113th and final game in a Team USA uniform.
His teammates, with a tough loss behind them and the prospects of no NHL season staring them in the face, tried to explain what their captain has meant to them and to USA Hockey.
“In the four tournaments that I’ve played with him that guy has been the best leader that I’ve been associated with,” said Bill Guerin, who played with Chelios on four U.S. National Teams, including the squad that won the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. “That guy is unbelievable. He keeps coming back because he truly loves the game and loves being a part of these things. You learn a lot from people like that. It’s been a great opportunity for me personally to just be around him.”
Chelios has come a long way during a 21-year NHL career that includes two Stanley Cups, three Norris trophies as the NHL’s top defenseman and five First-Team All-Star selections. But it was in a USA uniform that Chelios shined brightest.
From the first time he wore a Team USA uniform as a member of the 1982 U.S. National Junior Team, Chelios gave his heart and soul to USA Hockey.
Along the way he earned the respect of teammates and opponents alike, a fierce competitor who played bigger than his 6-foot-1, 190-pound frame would indicate. Ville Nieminen would get a taste of that when Chelios rocked the Finnish forward into the boards with a stiff shoulder.
“It’s amazing that he can still do that at his age,” said Finnish sniper Teemu Selanne, who has played against Chelios for 12 years. “He’s been a top player for so many years. It looks like he can still play when he’s 50.”
Chelios was presented with the “C” as the U.S. Team broke training camp, but there was never a question about who was the leader both on the ice and in the locker room.
“He’s been a fantastic ambassador for USA Hockey and for the NHL,” said Head Coach Ron Wilson. “He’s a class act and all inclusive. He’s not an elitist at all. He remembers his roots. That’s why guys love him as a teammate. If you played five games in the NHL or this is your first experience on the National Team, you’ll leave there knowing the type of person Chris Chelios is.”
Chelios played in three Olympics, including leading the U.S. to a silver medal in the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. After skating for the U.S. in 1984 in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, he joined the Montreal Canadiens, where he played for six full seasons, and was the first American captain in Canadiens history.
He also skated for the United States in three Canada Cup tournaments (1984, 1987 and 1991), including a second-place finish by the Americans in 1991.
“He’s the Godfather of USA Hockey,” said 23-year-old John-Michael Liles, who was paired with Chelios in the first two games of the tournament. “He’s been putting his heart and his body on the line for a number of years now, and he always gives 110 percent and never takes a shift off. There’s a reason why he’s been playing this game for so long and why he’ll continue to play as long as he wants to.”
“It’s an honor to be able to skate with some of these guys, especially someone like Chris Chelios, who has been a warrior in this league for so long,” added Paul Martin, 23. “It’s something I’ll be able to tell my kids.”
Something else Martin can tell his kids. Chelios went home to his house in Malibu, Calif., looked out over the Pacific Ocean and realized that it’s not time for Captain America to ride into the sunset. He told USA Hockey he would be ready if needed in future international competitions.