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Monday, March 03, 2003

Sports

He Shoots! He Scores! He’s Greek American?


They say that hockey players look less fearsome off the ice, without their skates, padding, and helmets. Yet Chris Chelios cuts a fine athletic figure as he slips back into his street clothes in the visitors’ locker-room in Philadelphia. He is considered not only one of the most accomplished players in the National Hockey League (NHL) but also one of the toughest, and he has the broad shoulders to prove it. Chelios has just emerged unscathed from a mid-January encounter with the Philadelphia Flyers that marked his return to the ice after a short time not playing because of a leg injury.

“Are you Greek yourself?” Chelios asks, as he slips on a pair of the voguish black retro casual shoes that all the Detroit Red Wings seem to favor. At 41 years old and a veteran of the NHL, he is used to interviews, albeit not about his ethnic roots. Normally quick to trumpet the social prominence of anybody of Greek origin in the United States, the Greek American media have missed Chelios’s rise to hockey stardom. The English-language Greek American press generally ignores sports while its Greek-language counterpart focuses exclusively on the sporting scene in Greece.

Yet Chelios’s place will be right next to that of world wrestling champion Jim Londos and tennis player Pete Sampras if a hall of fame is ever built for Diaspora Greek athletes. The Greek American hockey player has been on two teams that won the Stanley Cup, the game’s highest club honor. Chelios is also a three-time winner of the Norris Trophy, awarded each year to the league’s top defender. Captain of Team USA in the 1998 and the 2002 Winter Olympics, he is a perennial All-Star, an honor bestowed on players by fan voting.

Some of those ballots for Chelios must have been cast reluctantly by fans of opposing teams. With the exception of very few arenas, most notably Montreal’s tradition-laden Forum (now replaced by the Molson Center), there is a dearth of sportsmanship in the stands. Chelios has always been considered an archenemy. He has infuriated opposing fans with his combination of formidable one-on-one defensive skills, speed in transition, the ease with which he gets involved in fights, and his willingness to incur penalties for what the NHL quaintly describes as “un-sportsmanlike behavior.”

The game in Philadelphia last January was no exception, even though now, as a senior citizen, he is slightly less prone to mix it up. Skating with his head tilted back slightly, and swinging his stick in front him as if he’s sweeping for mines, Chelios patrolled the ice with skill and physical force. In the middle of the second period, he was assessed a “holding stick” penalty. For old times sake, several loud voices rose from the stands to heckle him as he made his way, protesting, to the off-ice “sin bin” (the area in which offending players sit out the necessary time of their infractions).

But this is also the man who has charmed dozens of hard-nosed sportswriters with his warmth and accessibility off the ice. Part of the good press he’s always received has to do with the respect he gains by his philanthropic work for children through his own charitable foundation, “Chelis’s Children.” Chelios first became involved in such activities, including visits to children’s hospitals and charitable fundraising, when he was with the Montreal Canadiens, and it is something he has kept up ever since.

Chelios also earned a gold medal as captain of the US team in the 1996 World Cup tournament — although it almost created a big fat Greek wedding crisis. The day the United States was playing Canada in Philadelphia in a World Cup final-round game, his sister was getting married in Chicago. In flagrant breach of etiquette, Chris left the wedding reception and rushed off to the airport and caught a flight to Philadelphia, where he received a police escort to the stadium.

The events of that day are in many ways typical of the second-generation ethnic experience: not so much a fusing of Greek and American cultures, but, rather, a cohabitation of sorts, managed by each individual, through choices made. In this case, yes to the wedding; no to the reception; yes to representing the United States on hockey ice. Considering the sport in which he excels, Chelios is obviously not the type of one-dimensional Greek American portrayed in My Big Fat Greek Wedding. As with so many thousands of second-generation Greek Americans born in the US after the Second World War, Chelios broke out of the ethnic cocoon. He made it in an area that defies ethnic labeling (with the exception, of course, of the claims Canadians can make on the game since they invented it — according to some accounts — in the nineteenth century on an icy pond in Montreal).

Icy ponds — in his words, “ice all over the place” — was what young Chris saw around him growing up in Chicago, where he was born in 1962. Chelios’s parents saw nothing wrong in him joining the other neighborhood kids playing ice hockey. He remembers that his mother, Chrysoula (Sue), bought him his first skates and that his father, Gus (Constantinos) encouraged him in his first steps as a hockey player. “My parents are typical Greeks,” added Chelios, “they still work in a diner.” They had emigrated from the Peloponnesus in the early 1950s, thanks to the displaced-persons legislation that relaxed immigration quotas in favor of the victims of war in Europe. Gus is from a village near Tripolis, and Chrysoula from a village near Sparta. But did they not have any qualms about their son taking up hockey, which, in its icy-pond version, was extremely physical? Chris shook his head, answering, “No, in fact my father thought it was a little like soccer, which he played in Greece before coming over.”

The Chelios family diner is Cheli’s Chili Bar and it is within sight of the arena in which the Blackhawks, Chicago’s NHL team, plays its home games. The reviews of this particular establishment that appear on Rocket99.com, a bar and restaurant guide, are unanimous in their praise, although the reviewers devote more space to singing the praises of Chris’s hockey than Gus and Chrysoula’s chili. The decor is a safe bet: pictures of Chicago Blackhawks greats, including Chris, and one of the Blackhawks jerseys he wore when he moved to his home team in 1990. The Chicago native spent six successful seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, where he began his career and won his first Stanley Cup, and where he was the first US-born player to captain the team.

Chelios’s fame has reached the shores of his ancestral homeland, where he has been several times to visit his parents’ villages. “I met the Greek sports minister, who spoke to me about developing ice hockey,” said Chelios, but nothing came of it. With the Greek government recently deciding not to fund Greek American and Greek Canadian efforts to establish the sport in Athens, it is unlikely that anyone will be soliciting any more advice from the most prominent player of Greek origin in the NHL.

Chelios stayed in Chicago for nine seasons before he forced the team to trade him to Detroit. He was fed up with the Blackhawks’ downward spiral. Chelios led them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1992, but they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next year, they were eliminated in the conference finals, the semifinal round, and the following year they went out in the quarterfinal round. The team began to do worse and worse and traded star players such as forward Jeremy Roenick and goalie Ed Belfour. The fans began to abandon the team, in a city famous for its loyalty to baseball’s perennial underachievers, the Chicago Cubs.

March 3, 1999, the day Chris Chelios was traded to Detroit, will always be remembered as a sad moment in Blackhawks history. The CNN-Sports Illustrated Website described it as a “sacrilegious trade” because Chicago-born and -bred Chelios was moved to an enemy team. Responding to the Website’s solicitation of fan reaction, a Blackhawks diehard wrote: “[W]hen they traded Chris Chelios, who is from Chicago and wanted to stay — go down with the ship, if you will — I was upset to the point of yelling out loud in a quiet library when I read the news on the Net. I didn’t even mind the weird looks, my heavy heart was preoccupied with the realization that the man who personified not only the team, but the tradition, was given away.”

This is perhaps the identity of the second-generation Greek Americans who make it up the social-mobility ladder and out of the ethnic ghetto. They become Chicagoans, New Yorkers, or Bostonians. Or Detroiters, as when, like Chelios, they have to move for professional reasons, justified in 2002 when the Red Wings won the Stanley Cup. Yet there’s an ethnic coda to the move, which will also involve moving Cheli’s Chili Bar and Chris’s parents in the near future. The reason? “I like the Red Wings, we have a great bunch of guys that motivate me to keep on playing — and I like Detroit,” said Chelios, “it’s a nice place, and there are many Greeks there.”

Alexander Kitroeff teaches history at Haverford College and is a contributing editor to greekworks.com, which published his most recent book, Wrestling With the Ancients: Modern Greek Identity and the Olympics.
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