Spector: Path to Hall of Fame not unassisted

Chris Chelios, left, won two Stanley Cups during his career with the Detroit Red Wings.
July 9, 2013, 7:27 PM

You’d think you would know just about everything about Chris Chelios, a newly minted Hall of Fame defenceman who played more than 1,900 NHL games.

Then comes induction day, and the inevitable standard question — “Who are the people most responsible for you being on this HHOF conference call today?” –teaches us something of which we were unaware.

“I’ve told this story 1,000 times,” began Chelios (we must have missed it), who heads the Hockey Hall of Fame’s class of 2013 along with Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan, Geraldine Heaney and builder Fred (The Fog) Shero.

It was the summer of 1979, and a 17-year-old Chelios’s family had moved from the hockey hotbed of Chicago to San Diego, where the game was almost unheard of.

“I was skating whenever I could with whoever I could,” began Chelios, who’d been cut by a few Canadian teams and wasn’t sure if his hockey dream was dead. “Then I met Bobby Parker who was playing in Moose Jaw, on a beach after I’d been cut, and he gave me a phone number out in Moose Jaw.

“I look back; it was just a real lucky break.”

His family had sent him to Canada for a couple of tryouts, to no avail. They didn’t have the money to fly teenaged Chris Chelios from San Diego up to Moose Jaw for another tryout.

“Larry Billows was the coach in Moose Jaw,” Chelios recounted on Tuesday. “I told him I wasn’t going to pay my ticket. It took him three days to finally call back and say they’d pay it.”

Thirty-four years and one Hall of Fame ring later, Billows made the right call.

“I guess I owe Moose Jaw a lot,” said Chelios, “because that was my big break.”

You don’t attain an honour like the one being best bestowed on these five without much help along the way.

Whether it was Shanahan’s mother phoning into the local Etobicoke cable show with her thick Irish brogue, shifting the conversation surreptitiously to a young rising star named Brendan Shanahan, or Heaney, playing on a Canadian women’s national team that was steeped in veteran players, there is always someone who helped to decode the map to greatness.

“A young defenceman coming into the league when I did, couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity,” said Niedermayer of being drafted by one of hockey’s most stable (on-ice anyhow) franchises, the New Jersey Devils. “The coaches that I had in New Jersey, then to play alongside such great veteran defenceman for the first few years in my career … It was the ideal spot for a young guy to come in and try to figure the game out.”

Who were the names that taught Niedermayer the most?

“Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko, Bruce Driver, (Slava) Fetisov, (Vladimir) Konstantinov, Tommy Albelin … To be able to … learn from them, watch what they do, really taught me a lot about being a pro.

“I’m probably on this call because of guys like that.”

“I wouldn’t be on this call today,” said Shanahan, “if it weren’t for my time in Detroit. I have to thank Mr. and Mrs. Ilitch, Scotty Bowman, Ken Holland and all of my teammates.”

It happens this way every time.

At the point in their career where the name on the back of jersey is finally being feted more than the name on the front, the hockey world listens as its HHOF recipients steadfastly move the conversation back to the people who helped them to get to this point, rather than talking about themselves.

To that point, Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero was asked what notion, above all others, his father Fred — who is inducted posthumously — had left him with. “The respect for the game and the people in it,” he said. “The friendships.”

“We’ve all be blessed,” Niedermayer said. “I had a lot of good people who’ve contributed to (his) success. It was pretty a special moment to play alongside my brother for a few years, and win a Stanley Cup together. To be able to hand him the Stanley Cup was definitely a highlight of my career.

“Probably something you’d never be able to dream of being able to do.”

That, and this November, when these five are inducted into the Hall.

A more worthy class we’ve not seen — even if they don’t like to talk about themselves.

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