Chris Chelios stood outside the Atlanta Thrashers locker room talking to reporters on Friday evening looking very much like that same physical specimen that broke into the NHL 26 years ago.
His hair grayer, the 48-year-old veteran of many hockey wars talked about his return to the league that he has called home for parts of four decades in the middle of a furious playoff push.
“You’ve just got to get used to the pace,” said Chelios, who toiled in the minors for most of the season with Atlanta’s top farm team, the Chicago Wolves. “Obviously, there’s not time to learn now. Every game is so big.”
He should know.
Time is of the essence for the fledgling Thrashers, who reached out to Chelios to help stop the hemorrhaging after the club dropped three straight games to fall out of the eighth playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta may have lost in Chelios’ debut to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, but who better than the veteran to lead the late charge?
Chelios is American hockey legend, who has logged more playoff games (266) than three of the team’s other six defensemen have played in regular season.
He has won three Norris Trophies as the league’s top defenseman, donned a uniform for the U.S.A. in four Olympics, played in 11 All-Star games and most importantly, won three Stanley Cups.
Oh boy, does he know what it takes to get things done down the stretch.
In his previous 25 seasons, Chelios-lead teams have missed the playoffs just once, in the 1997-98 season. His Chicago Blackhawks team finished one spot out of the postseason that year.
The Thrashers could use his experience down the stretch.
The team began the post-Olympic break with a vengeance, blistering 10 goals in their first two games back en route to clawing their way into playoff position in the East. However, they have struggled of late, posting just four goals over their last four games to fall six points behind the Boston Bruins in the congested Eastern Conference.
The hockey veteran knows that with 16 games left in the season, things can change quickly.
“I’ve always believed that things can change on a goal,” Chelios said. “It’s going to be one play tonight, that’s my mindset.”
A lot has changed in hockey since Chelios first donned an NHL uniform for the Montreal Canadiens.
Thrashers coach John Anderson has gone from playing against Chelios as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Quebec Nordiques and Hartford Whalers to coaching a player just four years his junior.
Quebec moved to Denver to become the Colorado Avalanche. The Whalers migrated to Raleigh to become the Carolina Hurricanes.
Gone is Winnipeg. The Minnesota North Stars moved to Dallas and were replaced by the Wild.
The league invaded the South and warm-weather climates in the West, putting teams in Miami, Tampa Bay, Nashville, Raleigh, Phoenix, Anaheim and Atlanta.
One thing that hasn’t changed is the camaraderie in the locker room.
“Hockey players are hockey players,” Chelios said of his reception when he joined the team in Columbus on Thursday. “They’re all nice.”
Yep. Nice, even if they are young have grown up idolizing you, as is the case with 19-year-old blueliner Zach Bogosian.
“I sat next to him,” Chelios said. “He had a couple of things to say. I think he’s played against my son. He’s the same age. I’ve run into that. It’s kind of rough.”
That’s bound to happen in a locker room where eight of the club’s 25 players were not even born when Cheli took the ice as a nervous rookie back during the Reagan administration.
For now, only one player has called him sir and no one has really razzed him that he is just two years away from being able to join AARP.
“I’m used to it,” Chelios said about jokes about his age. “If that’s the only thing they go after is my age, I don’t have a problem with that.”