More Beaches, Less Ice
I probably inherited my work ethic from my father, who I think came up with a new way to earn money every single day of his life.
Kosta "Gus" Chelios started out driving a truck in Chicago and ended up owning a handful of different restaurants. No one sought the American dream more aggressively than my father. When he was a 15-year-old kid living in Greece, he lied about his age to enlist in the country's air force. He immediately became a mechanic, working on British-made Spitfires. He moved to America in 1951 hoping to raise a family and have a better life than he would have in Greece. My dad and mother, Susan, had five kids. I was the oldest, and I had three sisters — Gigi, Penny, and Elena — and one brother, Steve.
When I was 10, my dad came home one day and announced we were all moving to Australia. He had a buddy who owned farms down there and was supplying U.S. troops in Vietnam with dairy and meat products. My dad was buying into the business.
Just like that, we packed up our life into 48 trunks and headed off to a new world.
Since my dad wanted to bring his car, we couldn't fly. We drove from Chicago to San Francisco, and then boarded a 42,000-ton cruise ship named the Oriana that took us to Fiji, then New Zealand, and finally Sydney, Australia. The boat trip lasted 20 glorious days.
The Oriana was almost three football fields long, and I explored every inch of that ship. It was like being on an adventure. One day, I ascended all the way up to the captain's bridge before anyone thought to ask me where I was going.
Being on that ship was like spending three weeks at summer camp. This ship was designed for people on vacation so they had events planned for children every day.
When we arrived in Australia, I became very popular with the U.S. servicemen on leave from Vietnam because I was the only person in Australia who owned an American football.
I played with those soldiers every day, and ended up giving them the football to take back to Vietnam.
Unfortunately for our family's finances, a month after we arrived, it was clear the Vietnam War was ending and my dad was left holding the bag on his business venture.
When he informed my mother that we had to pack up and travel home by boat, she informed him that she had her own plan. She was going to fly home with the children, and my father could travel home on the ship with our 48 trunks and his beloved car.
The saving grace was that my father had structured the deal on our house in Chicago so that we had a window during which we could cancel the contract. So, after we lived in a hotel for a good long while waiting for the people in our house to move out, we moved back into our house on 101st Street.
During the short time we were in Sydney, my father noticed that Australia had no fast food restaurants. After we returned to Chicago, he pursued the McDonald's franchise rights in Australia. In hindsight, he says he had the wrong partners and someone else ended up with the Australian McDonald's.
The stock price for those first 60 McDonald's franchises in the 1970s was trading at $310 per share, my dad remembers. He said if he had just registered the McDonald's name in Australia, he would have made a nice profit. That would have only cost him $350.
"I blew that one," he said.
MY WILD SIDE WAS also probably inherited from my father. Everyone loved my dad. He knew everybody. He was the guy on the street who organized the block parties. He was always in the middle of every event. But he also had an edge to him. He was rough. He was the kind of man who would yell at officials during games, and get into arguments and fights with other parents. If he got pulled over by the police for a driving infraction, it would end up with a confrontation.
We lived on the south side of Chicago, in Evergreen Park, and that alone toughened me up. I did not have a normal childhood.
People from all walks of life would end up at our house. Poker games would sometimes last three days. Sandwiches made by my mother kept the players going through the night.
In between working at our family's restaurants, my mother ended up getting a good job as a waitress in a nightclub. She made enough money to allow my dad to stay home and take care of his children. He put us all in sports leagues and insisted we work hard at whatever we did.
I remember playing Pee Wee hockey and my dad quizzing me about why I hadn't played as well as I had been playing. I had no good answer.
"Don't you like hockey?" he asked. "If you don't like it, let me know right now because it is very expensive."
"Yes, I like hockey," I said. "I like it very much."
"Then I'm going to be with you all of the time, telling you not the good things you do, but rather the bad things you do."
To my dad, sports participation was about working hard. His dream was that my participation in sports would lead to a college scholarship. But that wasn't my dream at that age. I just loved playing.
Growing up in Chicago, I had as much success as a baseball player as I did as a hockey player. I was a Greg Maddux–style control pitcher, able to throw the ball where I wanted with consistency. Using a fastball and a slow curve, I could paint the corners and move the ball around to keep the hitters off balance.
My pitching rival in Evergreen Park was Donn Pall, who ended up pitching 10 years in the major leagues for the Chicago White Sox, Philadelphia Phillies, New York Yankees, Chicago Cubs, and finally the Florida Marlins. He is also remembered for giving up Mark McGwire's 57th home run in 1998, the one that broke Hack Wilson's National League record.
Although we played on different teams during the season, we were supposed to be on the same Evergreen Park team at the state tournament. But Pall's dad was the manager of the team and he decided to play me in right field. When my dad showed up at the game and saw me out there, he pulled me off the team. That was the end of my baseball career.
All of my youth hockey days in Chicago were spent as an undersized center, not a defenseman. I was a scorer. I knew where to be and where to go to be successful. I played for the St. Jude Knights and the Chicago Jesters.
My dad always said that my brother, Steve, six years younger than me, was a better player than I was. But Steve wasn't disciplined enough and didn't respect his coaches enough to take advantage of his talent. He was a defenseman and played major junior hockey in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Western Hockey League, and then bounced around in the minor leagues until about 2000. He even played briefly in Holland.
Throughout my childhood I worked for my father in the restaurant business. I did what needed to be done: I cleared the tables, washed dishes, and stacked, cut, or carried whatever needed to be stacked, cut, or carried.
When my father owned the Blue Note on Halsted, I was the coat check boy. I remember a guy named Guitar Red playing there. I liked his sound. I also worked in the Grecian Mist near Bridgeview, as well as a few other places. Kids who grew up in my era knew about cartoons and sports heroes. I knew about restaurants.
It wasn't easy working for my dad. A few pots, pans, and dishes were thrown my way when I wasn't doing a task the way he wanted it done.
"There are three doors in the restaurant," he once told me, "and when you see me mad, you should probably go out one of them and then come back later and I will be better."
I was a quiet kid growing up who played the piano, clarinet, cornet, and saxophone. I only played the clarinet because my father made me. It was a Greek thing. When I was in eighth grade, I played clarinet in the Central High School band. I was also playing hockey, and when there was a conflict, I picked up a stick, not a clarinet.
One weekend, the band competed in a state competition and I was playing in a hockey tournament. When I came back to school on Monday, the teacher called me out in front of the entire band.
"Someone thought it was more important to play hockey than to be with his classmates," the teacher said.
I was in the last row, because that's where the weakest musicians sat. I stared at my teacher for a second or two, then rose from my seat and walked out. I never played the clarinet again. That was the end of my musical career. My dad wanted to kill that guy. I was just thankful to be done with band.
When a family friend paid my way to Mount Carmel High School, a Catholic school in Chicago, I was able to play baseball and hockey for a couple of years. I played on the junior varsity hockey team, but I had one memorable varsity goal. When one of our top centers was suspended for the championship game, I was promoted to play against Brother Rice. Given the opportunity to play on a scoring line, I scored both goals in a 2–1 victory. My second goal came with eight seconds to go in the game.
Immediately after the game, a couple of my teammates and I jumped in a car and drove to Waukegan to play for the St. Jude Knights in the state championship game. We missed one period, but we ended up winning the game.
It was the only great day of my high school career. The Chelios family was on the move again.
BY THE FOLLOWING FALL, my dad had lost his restaurant and decided to move us to San Diego with the hope of opening another establishment.
He went to visit a friend there, and then called my mother and said, "It's a paradise."
The restaurant he opened in San Diego did turn out to be his best one. When he sold it, he made a couple hundred thousand dollars.
Going to California was not a strategic move based on furthering my hockey career. I played midget hockey out there, but the competition wasn't good. We were coached by John Miszuk, a former professional player who had toiled for several teams in the NHL and for the Baltimore Blades, Michigan Stags, and Calgary Cowboys in the World Hockey Association.
Our midget team didn't even have a nickname. We were called "San Diego" and had a Jack in the Box logo on our jerseys.
Because the competition was lacking, a couple of my teammates and I started traveling three times each week to play for a team in the Los Angeles area. Occasionally, we would travel to Phoenix or Seattle for tournaments.
While other top players in my age group were playing for high-level programs, I was playing for an L.A. team that primarily played the same opponent over and over. We won the state championship one season because we had no other team in our category.
In the late 1970s, Americans had a minimal presence in the NHL. It was still primarily a league led by Canadians. Colleges also looked to Canada first for talent, and when NHL scouts and college recruiters did look at American players, they certainly weren't looking in San Diego.
You looked for vacation homes in San Diego. You didn't look for hockey players.
The chance of my ending up playing college hockey or making it to the NHL probably would have been calculated as next to nonexistent.
But none of that mattered to me at that time; I had no clue about the lack of Americans in the NHL, nor did I give any thought to my chances of being a college or professional player. I didn't know anything about Canadian junior hockey. I wasn't on USA Hockey's radar when I moved to San Diego, and USA Hockey wasn't on my radar.
If you asked a 16- or 17-year-old Chris Chelios what he thought he would do with his life, he probably would have said "get a business degree from a college in San Diego."
I did love playing hockey, and I was hoping to find a way to continue playing. But at that time of my life I was spending more time on the beach than on the ice. We surfed almost every day. When I wasn't working at my dad's restaurant, I was in the water as much as possible.
I'm sure my parents believed San Diego would be a safer place than Chicago for my siblings and me to grow up, but that turned out to be a false assumption. Five students were killed while I was at Mira Mesa High School. Another student was stabbed at a beach party but survived. Even our straight-laced student president was involved in a knife fight.
A few police cars would show up after school each day and tell us to go right home.
I did some crazy stuff when I was living in San Diego, including jumping off one of the cliffs at La Jolla known as The Clam. In 1994, San Diego officials banned cliff jumping into the Pacific Ocean because of the danger, but when I was there it was a rite of passage.
There are many different kinds of jumps at The Clam. There are a couple of easy ones, but most of them will make your stomach drop. The easiest jump is seven feet from the water and the hardest jump is from Dead Man's Cliff, 107 feet above the ocean. You are thinking that crazy Chelios probably jumped from that one, but you would be wrong. I made the jumps that are about 35 or 40 feet above the water.
The jumps have inviting names like Thread the Needle, The Wall, The Pass, The Point, The Pedestal, The Bear Claw, and The Double Bear Claw. But those of us who lived in the area understood that despite the fun names, the jumps themselves were quite dangerous.
During the daylight hours, most of the jumps are relatively easy. At night, it's a different story. You have to stand at the cliff's edge and use the moonlight to judge the swells on each jump. Depending on the swells, the water you're jumping into could be anywhere from 10 feet to 30 feet.
On a night jump, my friend James O'Connell struck rocks on the way down and cut his back severely. We spent the night in the emergency room. Many people have been injured, and a couple of jumpers have been killed.
The other problem at night was that people were usually drinking and not thinking.
I like to believe that I was always careful when I jumped. I would dive or do flips off the cliffs during the day but at night I would only jump.
None of my friends ever made the leap off Dead Man's Cliff, but I saw other people do it. They would wear tennis shoes to protect their feet. I saw crazy people ride bicycles off that cliff. I'm sure they were under the influence when they did that.
I think more people injured themselves climbing up the cliff than were injured jumping off. If you fell climbing back up, you were likely to hit your head on rocks on the way down. When you were jumping off the cliffs, at least you were pushing yourself away from the rocks.
As much as I wanted to have fun out there, I was smart enough to avoid taking unnecessary risks.
Cliff jumping wasn't my only dangerous endeavor in San Diego. O'Connell was a motocross rider, and one time, when his bike's engine was shot, we pushed it to the top of the mountain, into the foothills. It took us two hours to get up there. Then O'Connell climbed on the front of the bike, I climbed on the back, and we rode it down the hill as fast as we could go on a full coast.
It was the wildest 15 minutes I've ever experienced.
We were hurtling down the hill as though we were rocket propelled. We made jump after jump. On the biggest one, I believe we were airborne for five or six seconds. Thankfully we never crashed, because we would have been seriously injured. It was certainly not the brightest decision in my life.
Although I survived that death-defying run, I was hurt on another day when I rode down on my own bike. I was wearing a helmet and all of the protective gear I was supposed to be wearing, but while making a jump, my foot slipped off and I ripped my shin open. The cut looked as wide as the Grand Canyon. Unfortunately, my family had no health insurance. So I just bandaged it and went on with my life. That's probably why I have such an ugly scar there today.
IT SEEMED AS THOUGH my luck was changing for the better when U.S. International University at San Diego started a NCAA college hockey program in 1979. After my high school graduation, I enrolled there with the idea of trying out for the team as a walk-on.
Maynard Howe was the first coach, and I actually played against him and his brother in the men's senior league.
The problem was that Canada had hundreds of junior players or former junior players who were excited about the possibility of leaving the frozen north to play hockey in a city where the beach was only minutes away. These players looked at the USIU program as their chance to hit a daily double — they could play hockey and then hit the beaches and party.
I couldn't blame those guys for being interested — I could have told them it made for a pretty sweet life.
Most of the players trying out were older and more experienced than I was. I was a 5'10", 155-pound center competing against players who were two, three, or four years older. They were more physically mature.
Predictably, I got cut. In hindsight, I probably didn't deserve to make the team. It looked as if my hockey career was over before it truly began.
One day, I came into the restaurant late for the dinner rush, and my dad erupted. He pulled down a rack of bread on top of me. I walked out of the restaurant and vowed that I would never work for my father again. It was a vow that I kept.