by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

These days, and at his age, I’m not sure what Chris Chelios’ best move is. But I can tell you this: shrugging is at the top the list.

Ask about the pressure. He shrugs it off. Ask about his skills. He shrugs it off. Ask about his notable performance in the playoffs so far, or his keeping up with guys half his age, or his pounding and finally outlasting a Vancouver goliath named Todd Bertuzzi.

Shrugs it off.

He is one big “Nah.” If a sculptor were doing a rendering of Chris Chelios, it would look like this: shoulders rolled, face with a smirk, hands waving away whatever you ask.

Which is what you like about the guy.

Unless, of course, you live outside of Detroit.

“How did it feel when you took that victory lap in Vancouver and the whole place was booing you?” I asked Chelios, after the Red Wings ousted the Canucks in the first round of the playoffs.

“Aw, I’ve been taking laps like that my whole career,” he said. “I’m used to that treatment. It felt good to say good-bye to those people.”

“Those people?”

“Yeah. Those people.”

Shrug ’em off.

Chelios, throughout his career, has been a player teams love to hate. They hated him in Detroit when he played for Chicago. He is a fighter. A survivor. You get the sense he could make it alone on a desert island, as long as he could compete against the trees.

All of which makes a little-known development even more remarkable. This year, Chris Chelios, the hardened, smirking 40-year-old defenseman, has taken a 21-year-old Czech kid named Jiri Fischer under his wing.

And Mr. Shrug has become a mentor.

A talented tandem

“I remember the first time I met him,” Fischer says. “He was more than twice my age. I was in juniors, 18 years old, and we came up to see a Wings playoff game. They had lost and I didn’t want to say anything stupid. He introduced himself and I just said hello. I never thought I’d be playing alongside him.”

But fate is funny. Fischer — whom Chelios calls “Fish” — found himself paired with the veteran much of this season. And for whatever reason (nobody instructed him to do so, he insists) Chelios is playing teacher to his defensive partner. Together they make a stinging pair.


“Aw, I like teaching with a kid like Fish,” Chelios says, “because he listens. He’s quiet, he’s humble.

“He’s exactly what a kid should be.”

In other words, he respects his elders. Chelios would not cotton to some loudmouthed, nose-pierced, gonna-do-it-my-way upstart. He’d look at him, roll his eyes and, well, you know . . . shrug.

Even with Fischer, Chelios is not always the gentle persuader. Or, as he puts it, “I’m not level-headed like Stevie Yzerman.”

He’ll let Fischer have it. He’ll yell when he’s out of position, or he doesn’t work the corners right, or isn’t handling his duties in front of the net.

Fischer listens. And he doesn’t talk back.

“Which do you hear more of,” I asked Fischer, “compliments or criticism?”

He laughed. Then he laughed.

“I guess from good teachers you’re supposed to hear more about the bad,” he finally said.

Then he laughed.


Chasing Lord Stanley’s cup

This is a nice subplot. Chelios, who won a Stanley Cup way back in 1986 with Montreal, is symbolic of this agey-cagey Red Wings team. He is not prone to panic. He is not easily impressed. And he is never intimidated. If there was ever a guy who had the right to say “Are you kidding me?” it would have been Chelios, at 190 pounds, squaring up against Bertuzzi, at 245.

He never flinched. And in the end, Chelios took the victory lap, not the giant.

“The great thing about being on this team is that I’m not supposed to do it all, like I sometimes felt in Chicago,” Chelios said. “When you’re the ‘go to’ guy, especially in the playoffs, you try and do too much and you wind up making mistakes.”

Instead, there is so much depth on the Wings, that Chelios, like a businessman who discovers gardening in his later years, has time to tend the flock — namely, Fischer. It is part of the circle. Guys like Larry Robinson and Jacques Laperriere taught Chelios. Now he passes it on.

The Wings play St. Louis in Round 2, starting Thursday. The Blues have a superstar defenseman, too, a young bull named Chris Pronger. Another arena to agitate. Another measuring stick for Chelifish.

“You’re sort of like the Kevin Costner character in ‘Bull Durham,’ ” I suggested to Chelios. “Older player teaches younger player?”

“Bull Durham?” he snapped. “That guy had no arm. I got plenty of legs!”

So not everything gets a shrug.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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