Blackhawks retire former captain Chris Chelios’ No. 7 jersey

CHICAGO — Watching his No. 7 rise into the rafters at the United Center, well, that travelled far beyond Chris Chelios’ wildest imagination.

“I’m not going to say it’s a dream come true because it was never a dream,” Chelios said. “You know, I wanted to make the NHL once I knew I had a chance. It’s crazy.”

Chelios’ jersey was retired by the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday during a pregame ceremony that highlighted the defenseman’s hard-charging lifestyle on and off the ice.

Dressed in all black and surrounded by family, friends and former teammates, Chelios blew kisses to the cheering crowd after he was introduced. The fans saluted the Chicago native with chants of “Cheli! Cheli!” while the current Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings watched from the benches.

“As a kid growing up in Chicago, I didn’t have any expectations of becoming a professional hockey player,” he said. “It just wasn’t the thing back then. … I played it because I loved it. That’s all it was.”

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Chelios, 62, played for his hometown team from 1990 until he was traded to Detroit in March 1999. He had 92 goals and 395 assists in 664 regular-season games with the Blackhawks. He remains the team’s career leader with 1,495 penalty minutes.

“He was the ultimate competitor, the ultimate leader and ultimate friend,” former teammate Jeremy Roenick said.

Chelios logged 26 seasons in the NHL, helped in part by a rigorous workout routine that included riding a bike in a sauna. He also played hard off the ice, often partying into the night at a handful of his favourite Chicago bars.

“The best advice I ever got in my career was from him,” former Blackhawks defenseman Gary Suter said. “‘If you drink beer at night, you’ve got to sweat it out the next day.’”

Said Roenick: “Nobody throws a party like Chris Chelios.”

Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder, former Chicago Bulls star Dennis Rodman and model Cindy Crawford were among a group of Chelios’ longtime friends who were in attendance. Michael Jordan, another former Bulls star and longtime buddy, sent along a congratulatory video that was aired right before the Blackhawks’ 3-2 overtime loss.

Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier, two more Hockey Hall of Famers, also watched from a box.

It was Vedder who broke the news to Chelios at a Pearl Jam concert in September that his jersey was being retired.

“I think I’m a better party planner than I am a hockey player,” Chelios said.

Chelios began his career with Montreal and played for the Canadiens for seven seasons. The three-time Stanley Cup champion was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013.

He was a three-time Norris Trophy winner — awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman — including twice during his time in Chicago. He has been serving as a team ambassador for the Blackhawks.

“Playing against him, you knew you were in for a tough night,” said former NHL forward Tony Amonte, who played alongside and against Chelios. “He’d have five or six sticks taped and they weren’t to shoot pucks. They were to break arms. He’s a beast. He does everything to an extreme.”

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Chelios is the ninth player to have his number retired by the franchise, joining Glenn Hall (No. 1), Pierre Pilote (No. 3), Keith Magnuson (No. 3), Bobby Hull (No. 9), Denis Savard (No. 18), Stan Mikita (No. 21), Tony Esposito (No. 35) and Marian Hossa (No. 81).

Like Pilote and Magnuson, Chelios could have some company with No. 7 in the rafters at some point. Brent Seabrook was a key defenseman on three Stanley Cup champions in Chicago, also wearing No. 7.

Seabrook also was on hand for the ceremony, and he waved after Chelios paid tribute to the big defenseman during his speech.

“I’d be more than happy to share a No. 7 up there right next to mine. It’d actually be really cool,” Chelios said.