“Atlanta Thrashers sign Gordie Howe,” was the best joke I heard when it was announced that the team had signed veteran defenceman Chris Chelios to an NHL contract. It certainly wasn’t the only joke I heard.
There have been relatively few examples of hockey players in Chelios’ age range continuing to play at a high level. Igor Larionov played for the New Jersey Devils when he was 43. 51 year-old Slava Fetisov came out of retirement to fill-in on CSKA Moscow’s blue line in the KHL early this year, after retiring more than a decade previously. Howe is the gold standard; he earned the moniker “Mr. Hockey” for good reason and helped the Hartford Whalers to a playoff berth in a season where he turned 52, recording 15 goals and 41 points in 80 games. He also played one IHL shift with the Detroit Vipers as he neared his 70th birthday.
Chelios turned 48 at the end of January. He spent time in the NHL with Detroit last season, but has been confined to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL for much of this year, although with the news of his signing yesterday he may get some time with Atlanta, though he’s slated to remain in the AHL for the time being.
I’m getting to my title point, although it is not what’s likely expected. Sure, I could go on about the mentoring aspect of the game, how Chelios provides a fine example for young Thrashers and how his competitive spirit will impact the team. I wouldn’t be wrong, either, and it’s entirely possible that the Thrashers view that as his most important contribution. It’s just that I had something different in mind.
Chelios can still play hockey; he’s earned another NHL shot and that’s what makes this special. This isn’t a case of the Thrashers throwing him a bone or hoping he can not hurt them too badly while he plays limited minutes. Chelios has played 44 games this year, and with the trade of Nathan Oystrick on Monday he is tied for the lead (with Paul Postma) in scoring on the Wolves blue line.
Plus/minus is a fickle statistic and not always reliable, but it says great things about Chelios. Chelios and his defence partner Arturs Kulda are running away with the team lead; Chelios is plus-35 and Kulda is plus-36 (last season, Kulda was plus-7). No other defenceman on the team is over plus-14.
So while all that stuff about veteran leadership is true and useful, it would be doing Chelios a disservice to forget that he can still contribute on the ice as well as off it.