Sitting on the balcony of his Foxtown restaurant, a slapshot away from Comerica Park where the Tigers are set for a September showdown with the Rangers, Chris Chelios wants to talk about Spartan warriors.
And he doesn’t mean MSU.
The gritty, forty-five year old Red Wings defenseman, regarded by most as a player other NHL players hate to face off with, is talking about the real deal: the three hundred Spartans who held the Persians at bay during the Battle of Thermopylae, made famous in a recent film called ‘300’.
Chelios is, of course, a real Spartan, his mother hailing from that sprawling town in the Peloponnese. Born Christos Kostas Tselios in 1962, Chelios credits his longevity in the league (24 years), his win-at-all-costs disposition, even his hand strength, which he claims is the best among his teammates, with his genetics. “I’m Greek,” he shrugs. “We know where to find that inner will, like the best of thoroughbred race horses. It’s our bloodline.”
With a son not much younger than some of his fellow Wings, Chelios is the oldest active player in the NHL, has played the most games of any active player in the NHL—and has racked up the most career penalty minutes of any active player. “Good breeding,” he says again.
His hockey history is as long, and in ways as brutal as some of the textbook battle scenes that he so enjoys, both in print and on the screen. Prior to being drafted Montreal Canadiens in 1981, Chelios played for the Moose Jaw Canucks of the SJHL. \As one of the top collegiate players in the country, he was selected to play for the United States at the 1981-82 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, and in 1983, he was part of the Badgers NCAA Men's Ice Hockey Championship team and was named to the All-Tournament Team and the Second WCHA All-Star Team. Chelios was also a member of the U.S. Olympic Hockey team for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. After the Olympics he made his debut for the Canadiens, playing 12 games in the regular season and 15 in the playoffs.
Chelios was traded to the Blackhawks in 1990, where he distinguished himself by helping to lead the Chicago team to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1992, and in the following season scoring 73 points and winning another Norris Trophy. To the delight of Detroit fans, he was traded to the Red Wings in 1999, and helped spearhead the Red Wings' victory over the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Finals of 2002. With a Greek population to rival Chicago’s, Detroit suits his ethnic pride as well: “Four, five nights a week,” he says, “You’ll find me in Greektown. I love it down there.”
That’s when he’s not at one of his own places, Cheli’s Chili, with outlets in Dearborn and Detroit. The venture is an extension of his original chile-centered eatery which he opened in Chicago during his stint with the Blackhawks. “In all the years they were immigrating to the United States,” Chelios says with a fatalistic smile, “Greeks were always drawn to restaurants… first to work in them, then to own them. I guess I’m no different.”
But back to Greek history, a topic that the well-read Chelios is happy to discuss. As dauntless a role model as Leonidas provided at the Thermopylae pass, he feels a spirit more akin to Achilles (as played by Brad Pitt in the recent film ‘Troy’)—one of Chelios’ favorites, and the greatest warrior of Homer’s ‘Iliad’. According to Chelios, Achilles was true champion who—like himself—fought against seemingly impossible odds, time and time again, even after everyone around him figured his days were numbered.
Maybe so, we’re forced to consider—but could he make a pot of chili?