AGELESS WONDER

The year he was born, a guy named Johnny Carson started working on “The Tonight Show,” John Glenn went around the Earth in a spacecraft, and the United States discovered Soviet missile bases in Cuba.

Chris Chelios is still skating.

The year he started grade school, a doctor named Christiaan Barnard performed the world’s first heart transplant and an actor named Dustin Hoffman mumbled, “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”

Chris Chelios is still skating.

He remembers fiddling with rabbit ears on a black-and-white TV set. He remembers beers they used to serve in his father’s bar – beers like Schlitz and Hamm’s – that are now hard to find.

He remembers 1969, when his father packed up the entire family in a Cadillac, drove to San Francisco and hopped on a boat that took 21 days to reach Australia. A young Chelios threw footballs with U.S. soldiers on leave from Vietnam.

Vietnam? Australia? Twenty-one days on a boat?

Chris Chelios is still skating.

“It is weird,” admits the 45-year-old Red Wings defenseman, the oldest player in the NHL. “You can feel a little out of it sometimes. Because they’re so young, it’s hard to have conversations with a lot of guys on the team. I’ve started to develop better relations with the alumni.”

Or maybe the alumni’s parents. Chris Chelios is twice as old as some of his teammates. He is a year older than his coach!

Yet there he is, skating in these playoffs, taking a blindside hit Friday night from Anaheim’s Corey Perry that knocked Chelios flat on his stomach. A hit like that might have sent someone packing. Or at least to the locker room.

Chelios got up, sucked in his breath and kept going.

Perry, who is 24 years younger, had to miss a few shifts.

Welcome to the crazy, ageless world of Chris Chelios, who skates through these playoffs, not in a diminished role, but in an increased one. Due to injuries to his fellow (and, ahem, younger) defensemen, Chelios has been forced to skate up to 26 minutes a night. Those are yeoman minutes for guys born in the ’80s!

“It takes some time to get in 26-minute shape,” he admits.

But who has time? So the Wings grab Chelios the way a bachelor grabs his favorite old sweatshirt, and they throw him out there because they’re comfortable with him, they trust him, and, oh, yeah, for whatever amazing, defiant reason, he’s still a darn good hockey player.

Grooving to the oldies

Your first albums?

“Eight tracks. Ted Nugent and Cat Stevens,” Chelios says.

Ted Nugent and Cat Stevens? Have they even been in the same sentence before?

“My dad had an 8-track player. Actually, I didn’t even buy those 8-tracks. I think I found them at the bar and took them.”

My guess is Pavel Datsyuk doesn’t know who Cat Stevens is. My guess is Henrik Zetterberg can’t sing the lyrics to “Stranglehold,” the song Chelios remembers from the Nugent album.

My guess is Valtteri Filppula has never owned the flare-bottom pants Chelios wore as a teenager, never had the mullet haircut he sported as a young player, never heard the disco music that played in the rinks where a young Chelios skated.

“Music is a pretty good indication of your age,” Chelios says. “The kids on the team never heard of any of my songs. You add the European factor, and there’s not much of anything in common.”

Chelios admits that when Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan left the team after last season, “I lost a lot of my conversation.

“Thank God I still have Dominik (Hasek) and Nick (Lidstrom). And guys like (Kris) Draper and (Kirk) Maltby, sometimes I feel like they’re my age, they’ve been around so long.

“If it hadn’t been for a few guys here like that, I think I would have moved on, I really would. That’s what happened in Chicago. They went with a youth movement and I felt really uncomfortable.”

Crisscrossing the generations

The year he became a sports fan, his heroes were Ernie Banks and Stan Mikita. The first car he remembers was a 1968 Cadillac. The older boys on his block graduated from high school and went to fight in places like the Mekong Delta.

Chris Chelios is still skating.

The year he was drafted into the NHL, England’s Prince Charles married Diana Spencer, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat was assassinated, and future teammate Niklas Kronwall was born.

Chris Chelios is still skating.

The year he won his first Stanley Cup (with Montreal), William Rehnquist was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Oprah Winfrey started her talk show, and future teammate Jiri Hudler celebrated his second birthday.

Chris Chelios is still skating.

It is hard to fathom all the life experience Chelios lugs with him when he climbs over the boards. He is the second-oldest player to ever score in the playoffs. He is second on the NHL’s list of all-time playoff appearances. He played against a guy – Dave Lewis – who became his coach. He played alongside a guy – Yzerman – who became management.

He plays against guys now who are only a few years older than his first-born son, who is 17.

And none of that seems to matter, not internally, not externally. Chris Chelios is still skating, more minutes, more minutes. Digging for pucks. Clearing the zone. Taking blind hits that knock him over but don’t knock him out.

“It’s like everything else, when you’re winning, it seems like you never get tired,” he says. “You can’t wait until the next game.

“I’ve got myself mentally programmed now so that physically I feel good and I don’t get tired.”

Last week, Ken Holland, the Red Wings’ general manager, told the media he wanted Chelios back for another year. When Chelios heard that, he says he felt good. Maybe even a bit younger.

He is a physical miracle, a chronological marvel, and a walking encyclopedia of references most of the Red Wings have never heard of, from Alcatraz to ZZ Top.

The first line of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” is “Here I come again now, baby.” And maybe today, when he enters the locker room, Chelios, for a joke, could sing it out loud.

Because I don’t think his 8-track still works.

SIDEBARS

Detroit’s elders

A look at other local teams’ aged:

Tigers The Tigers had the image of being a young team when they were the surprise of baseball in winning the AL pennant last year. But according to Rocky Mountain News baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby, the Tigers average 30.1 years – 18 months older than the next team in the AL Central (White Sox, Royals, Indians and Twins all average under 29 years), and their major off-season addition was 38-year-old DH Gary Sheffield. Reliever Jose Mesa is the oldest active player at 40 years old. (Starter Kenny Rogers is 42, but is on the disabled list and hasn’t pitched this year.)

Pistons Dale Davis, 38, is the eldest with Lindsey Hunter, 36, right behind. The Pistons have four key players in the 30-34 age range: Antonio McDyess, Chris Webber, Rasheed Wallace and Chauncey Billups. Three of those players (McDyess, Webber and Billups) could become free agents after the season.

Lions The Lions have 11 players 30 or older. Kicker Jason Hanson, 36, is the eldest of the Lions. QB Jon Kitna is right behind at 34.

Graybeards

The oldest active players in the major sports:

NFL

Jeff Feagles, 41, Giants

While ex-Spartan Morten Andersen, 46, was the Falcons’ kicker last season, this punter appears to be the only 40-year-old currently on a roster.

MLB

Julio Franco, 48, Mets

The first baseman is one of numerous 40-year-olds, including Roger Clemens (44) and Barry Bonds (42).

NBA

Dikembe Mutombo, 40, Rockets

The center filled in admirably for Yao Ming this year; Dallas also signed ex-Spartan Kevin Willis, 44, briefly this season.

NHL

Chris Chelios, 45, Wings >>

The defenseman is 15 months older than coach Mike Babcock.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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