TORONTO — There have always been those who wondered about Chris Chelios’s sanity as he continued playing professional hockey into his 40s.
They must really think he’s crazy now.
Just one month away from his 48th birthday, Chelios is patrolling the blue-line for the Chicago Wolves of the American Hockey League. And he’s nowhere near as anxious to get back to the NHL as you might think — Chelios says he turned down an offer from an NHL team a week and a half ago because he wasn’t keen to be low on the depth chart.
“It would have to take a pretty unique situation (to sign with an NHL team),” Chelios said Friday before the Wolves faced the Toronto Marlies. “Not to say I’d be picking and choosing, but I think I’m in a really great situation in Chicago here. It’s much better to be one of the top four defencemen here than it would be to be a seventh defenceman in the NHL.
“People might think you’re crazy to say that, but I really do enjoy myself playing here.”
How else to explain his excitement with this weekend itinerary? After playing Friday night in Toronto, Chelios and the Wolves faced a six-hour bus ride to Cleveland, where they’ll play Lake Erie on Saturday. The next afternoon, those two teams will go at it again.
It’s one thing for prospects like Riley Holzapfel, Arturs Kulda or Spencer Machacek to slog through three games in less than three days while hoping to move on to the NHL; it’s quite another thing for a three-time Stanley Cup champion to do it simply for the joy of playing.
Chelios concedes that life in the AHL comes with its own unique set of challenges.
“You’ve really got to go out of your way to be prepared in these games,” he said. “It’s just unfortunate sometimes with the travel. (It’s) not like the NHL, where you’re basically babied and spoiled. But I’ve done this before in junior hockey.
“If you’ve got to pay your dues now at the end of your career, big deal. I’m enjoying it. The young guys are a blast to be around.”
There’s even been some learning experiences.
Success came quickly for Chelios, who had a goal and eight assists through his first nine games with the Wolves. However, he found himself playing an unfamiliar style and soon decided he had to “settle down.”
“You can’t carry the world on your shoulders, I’ve realized that especially at my age,” said Chelios. “I think I got fooled a little bit when I came into the league here. I was getting points, things were going so well and then I tried to do more than I probably should have.
“Now I’m sitting back. I know what my role would be if I was to get picked up (by an NHL team) — I’ve got to play a defensive role, I’ve got to help the young kids along.”
The only downside of the current arrangement is that Chelios is away from his wife and two teenage daughters. They stayed behind in Detroit because Chelios didn’t want to uproot the family and start moving them all over the place — “I did that when I was a kid and it wasn’t any fun,” he said.
Even though Chelios played more than 1,600 NHL games, he had fairly long stints with all three of his teams — seven years in Montreal followed by nine in Chicago and a decade in Detroit.
He isn’t entirely sure why he still has such a passion for the playing the sport a full 25 years after first arriving in the NHL.
“Who knows?” said Chelios. “(It helped) I was with a team like Detroit, had such a successful 10 years there. Winning cures everything. … Back in Chicago in my last year there (1998-99), I thought the end was pretty close there because of the fact the team didn’t have any success. The veterans were the ones that were being moved like myself.
“I’ve been very fortunate to be on some great teams.”
The Wolves went through a stretch of 10 wins in 13 games shortly after Chelios joined them, but have been struggling a bit more of late. It’s pretty clear in a conversation with Chelios that it’s weighing heavy on his mind.
For the time being, his focus is solely on helping the Wolves try and win another Calder Cup. He’s certainly not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring with an NHL general manager on the line.
“If I get the call I get the call,” said Chelios. “Otherwise, I’m pretty content here.”