Chris Chelios' career spanned 26 years, starting when he was an offensive defenseman with the Montreal Canadiens at 22 and finishing as a spare part with the Atlanta Thrashers at 48. In between, he won three Stanley Cup rings, the Norris Trophy as top defenseman three times, and played in World Cups and four Winter Olympics with the likes of Brett Hull, Jeremy Roenick, Keith Tkachuk, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, and against superstars such as Wayne Gretzky.
Chelios, 54, moved into the coaching world with Team USA at the World Juniors and is now an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. The 2013 Hockey Hall of Fame inductee talked recently about his career and where he sees it going from here.
ESPN.com: What are your thoughts about the playoffs?
Chelios: Watching Chicago get knocked out, there's no favorite now. Maybe Washington because of the regular season. Or Pittsburgh, as hot as the Penguins have been for the last month, or the teams from out west, St. Louis. I would say it's really hard to predict who's going to win the Cup.
ESPN.com: How does the quality of hockey -- the toughness, the grit -- compare to when you played?
Chelios: I think Gretzky said it best a couple of weeks ago: The coaching and all the structure is the biggest difference. I mean, watching people make mistakes like we did back then because we were creative, not so structured. The coaches were old school and just opened the door; work hard, and they were happy with that. Now, you do as you're told -- unless you're one of those top-three elite players on the team -- or you don't play. So, it's just structure, the evolution of the game, the coaching by guys who never really played, the younger coaches. I want to kill whoever invented video and all this technology, the stats. But that's just the way it is. And my kids don't know any different. That's what they're raised on. It's just different.
ESPN.com: How does that work when you, as a former player who went through that -- you open the door and you go out kind of thing -- work within the real structured system now as an assistant coach? How do you reconcile those two?
Chelios: I always said that if I was a coach, I'd let them have a bit of a leash, but I found myself in the World Juniors tightening that leash up because that's just the way things are. You want to be a good guy, you want to be a nice guy to the players, you want to be a players' coach, but at the same time you want to win, so it's hard, especially for me. I'm adjusting now and that's why I'm taking my time. If I do happen to take that next step to be a head coach, a full-time coach, I hope I'll be ready. Again, I feel bad sometimes after games not allowing the defensemen to be more creative -- but now I get it, always second-guessing coaches as a player, now I get it.
ESPN.com: How would Chris Chelios, the player, fare in today's system?
Chelios: Well, I adjusted I think because I played so long and had been through different types of games. Mike Babcock, I don't think there's a more structured coach than him, and I struggled with him. I tried to do what he wanted me to do. I was one of those players, you talk about elite players, I had a vision, I could see the puck and plays developing before it happened, but once he had me doing straight lines, I was worthless. Then I knew the end was there.
ESPN.com: Gretzky, the greatest player of all time, wasn't so great behind the bench. You're in a similar position, an elite defenseman throughout your career. What did you learn from Gretzky's coaching experience?
Chelios: I've known Gretz for 30 years, played against him, got to be a great friend. He's just too nice. He was too good a guy. He wouldn't, he couldn't do that to a player. He was still a player as a coach, and he'll never lose that mindset -- that's how Gretz is. I think I'm trying to balance it. It was pretty funny. Gretz ended Hully's career at one point and ended Roenick's career [by cutting them loose], and poor Gretz lost sleep. I won't lose sleep over it because it's your job to win games. Gretz just couldn't do it, and that's probably why he's still not in hockey, because he doesn't want to have to do that to players.
ESPN.com: You had many playoff battles and moments while playing with the Blackhawks, Canadiens and Red Wings. What was your favorite?
Chelios: I think the favorite would be winning the Cup at home. When we won with Montreal in '86, we were in Calgary so it's the team celebrating, not the crowd. It was a huge difference winning it at home in Detroit as opposed to winning it on the road when we won it in Pittsburgh that one year. That probably would be my best memory, celebrating it with the fans and then leaving the rink and going right down the street somewhere with the fans. That was pretty special.
ESPN.com: You played for the Canadiens, the Blackhawks, the Red Wings. Compare the three Original Six markets for me.
Chelios: The timing for me, coming in as a young rookie to Montreal, there's no better place to play hockey. To compare, it would be like you're on the Yankees and you're in the spotlight 24/7. Chicago, being my hometown, the timing was perfect. Unexpected trade, I probably would have been disappointed if I'd went anywhere else, but it brought me back to my family, my parents, my friends, so that was rewarding in the sense that all my coaches that I grew up with had a chance to see me play for the Blackhawks. And then Detroit. I thought it was at the end of my career in Chicago -- things weren't looking good -- but then I lasted another 10 years with a team that had older players, veterans, Scott Bowman. So I can't say one was better than the other, it was just the timing was perfect in every city, the Thrashers being the only blemish on my career. ... I said I wanted to leave the game when the tank was empty -- and it was empty.
ESPN.com: You knew for sure after that, right?
Chelios: Yup, there was no question in my mind that Atlanta was the last stop.
ESPN.com: When was the moment when you realized that was it? When was the turning point?
Chelios: Playing nine minutes a game, sitting on the bench and staring into space, saying, "You know what? I'd rather be with my family than be sitting on the bench here." And being away from your family. A lot of guys, that's what you deal with toward the end of your career, is to have to relocate, and I knew my family wasn't moving, and I knew I didn't want to be apart from them, so it was a pretty easy decision.
ESPN.com: As a player who played for many years, what do you think about the accomplishments of Jaromir Jagr this season?
Chelios: You look at his numbers and it's incredible, what he's doing, especially with the game and how it's changed. But he's the guy who has that luxury of being able to do what he wants out there and he can because he doesn't need a lot of chances to put the puck away or make a play. He's got a great GM in Dale Tallon who allows that, [coach Gerard] Gallant gave him the freedom to play that way at his age. You look at Gordie Howe. I think, at 52, he scored 20 goals so [Jagr] still has a ways to go but, again, in this day and age, it's hard to come by points and goals. It's amazing what he's doing.
ESPN.com: How is it different for a defenseman to play for a long time as opposed to a forward playing for a long time?
Chelios: A defenseman, you can do what I did -- I was an offensive defenseman and ultimately I became a defensive defenseman, in a role like that. Jagr's not going to be a defensive forward in a year or two. I guess that's the biggest difference. And all the experience and knowledge of playing with Nick Lidstrom doesn't hurt one bit, too. You could play a defensive role too, kind of like [Brooks] Orpik -- he just fits in.
ESPN.com: What advice could you give Jagr, as a guy who played for a long time?
Chelios: I don't think he needs advice. He's got it figured out. The fact that he trains the way he does now is so unorthodox, his whole routine. He's got that luxury of doing what he wants, he's kind of a free-spirit guy and he's having a blast. Every time you watch him, he's laughing. When we played against him, I'd sic the dogs on him and he didn't get a point, and I had him swinging at guys by the end of the night, so I know how to get under his skin, too.
ESPN.com: You're a part-time assistant coach now with the Red Wings. What ultimately do you want to be doing down the road?
Chelios: Full-time, whether it's assistant or head coach, I think that's where I'd fit in the best. And I'll start as an assistant coach, working with the D. It's not as easy as it looks, coaching. As a player, you're always second-guessing and complaining about this and that. You can't please everybody, there's always going to be unhappy guys. And now that I'm on the other side, I realize that.
ESPN.com: What's the difference between the players when you played and now when you're coaching?
Chelios: You see the size and the speed. For sure the training. It's not like you take three months off like we did, and not even put your skates on for the summers. It's 24/7 all year-round for these guys. If you don't do it, you can't keep up -- that's just the way it is. It's all about speed. You can be a guy with way less skill now, but if you can skate, you can be in the league.
ESPN.com: What's your favorite memory from winning the World Cup in 1996?
Chelios: The celebration, being able to stick it to Canada with that trophy, skating around the ice. And we did rub it in a little more than you probably should have. But that was the only time we had, that we ended up on the good side against Canada -- World Cups, world championships, Olympics -- it was the only time we had our moment with that group of guys, the Tkachuks, the Leetches, Richter and so on. Just the families, the friends -- it was a big relief that we finally did beat Canada.
ESPN.com: What's your hope for Team USA in this year's World Cup?
Chelios: I don't think you can pick a favorite, but it seems like the last couple of Olympics, the World Cups, it always ends up with Canada-U.S., so I hope it happens and I hope we're on the right side at the end.
ESPN.com: Great, Chris. Thanks for your time.
Chelios: Yup, thank you.