When I was six years old, my dad took me to see my first NHL game. The Chicago Blackhawks, his favourite team at the time, were taking on the hometown Winnipeg Jets.
Like most kids who are sports fans at an early age, there was a certain mimicry in my fandom; I loved the teams and players that my father did. He knew more than I did, he understood the game far better, so of course he was right. Of course he was a Blackhawks fan, because how could he not be? While most fans cheered because of proximity, I cheered because of my old man’s cheering. And it stuck.
In the interest of honesty, I don’t remember much of the game. I remember a man in the row behind us cursing, I remember the game went to overtime, and I remember there was a snowstorm because of course there was a snowstorm in the midst of a Winnipeg winter. But if there’s one more thing I remember, it’s the t-shirt.
A black shirt, size medium (which was large enough that you could have have fit two of me in it, but this way I could grow into it in a decade or so), adorned with vertical text that said CHELIOS, and a picture of Chris Chelios skating up the ice. I wore that shirt from that night until it was worn out years later.
Chelios, from that day forward, was a hockey god in my eyes. My first jersey was a Blackhawks Chelios sweater (the black alternate), and I still have it hanging in my closet. His 75th anniversary jersey hangs on my wall. A hoodie adorned with the ‘Hawks logo and Chelios pressed on the back is in my ever-so-stylish wardrobe rotation.
My dad stopped loving the Blackhawks — and rightfully so, as the team was bleeding talent and Mr. Wirtz wasn’t doing anything to keep the team together — around the time Philadelphia had their resurgence with the Legion of Doom, but I didn’t and I still haven’t. There’s no doubt that Chelios was a big part of that.
Every day when I came home from school, my dad, the ultimate ball buster, would tell me Chelios had been traded. Every day, a new team. Every trade, for a worse package. If you asked me during those five minutes a day, I would have at least justified that maybe the Blackhawks really needed the bag of pucks they got from Buffalo in exchange for my favourite number seven. But, one day, it actually happened, and I remember wanting to cry.
How could they trade the captain? Didn’t they know he was the best player on the team? But, maybe most importantly at that time, how could they do this to me?
I’ve always had a bad memory, it’s just one of those things. I mix up my parents’ birthdays, I can’t remember what happened a week ago, and details of events get fuzzy if I don’t make a point of recalling them on a regular basis. But I remember going into my bedroom after Chelios was traded to Detroit, and I remember thinking that I had to change my allegiance. I couldn’t love the player and hate the team. I couldn’t cheer for the Blackhawks to beat up on the Red Wings if it meant Chelios wouldn’t win.
Eventually, I got past the idea of being a Red Wings fan. I don’t know how, or why, or what made me realize being a Blackhawks fan was OK in the face of Chelios not suiting up for his hometown team.
It was a joy to watch Chelios lift the Cup twice with Detroit. I wanted so badly for him to win the Norris in 2001-02, only for him to lose it to teammate and legend Nicklas Lidstrom. And it hurt to watch the replay of his career ending on a giveaway in his own zone while playing for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.
Last night, when Chelios gave his Hall of Fame induction speech, it felt like one of those big milestones in the life of a hockey fan. Chris Chelios is the first player that I really loved who has made it into the Hall. Every ounce of my NHL fandom can be tied back to Chris Chelios, and my dad pointing me in his direction.