Chris Chelios played in the NHL for 26 years (26!). And now, on top of all of that knowledge and experience, he’s gaining more and more credibility as a talent developer.
He knows what it takes to excel as an NHL defenseman. However, as a father of two sons who climbed from youth hockey to NCAA Division I hockey and careers in the minor leagues, Chelios also has a keen understanding of the challenges that kids face when trying to learn how to train and play the sport correctly.
Since retiring in 2010, Chelios has worked in the Detroit Red Wings front office under general manager Ken Holland, where he’s played a heavy role in developing the organization’s defensemen both at the NHL and AHL levels. He’s also serving as an assistant coach under Ron Wilson for the 2016 U.S. National Junior Team.
Chelios, 53, recently spoke about his role with USA Hockey, and also offered advice for youth hockey coaches on how to best work with young players.
USA Hockey: You played with high intensity. What has the transition been like for you now that you’re not a player?
Chris Chelios: That’s been the toughest thing for me. Sitting in the rooms after games as a player, I couldn’t be critical of my teammates. I think I always knew how to speak to my teammates and could motivate them. I held those leadership roles, as far as being captain and assistant captain. As a coach, I don’t approach things that differently.
USA Hockey: We often hear that defensemen take longer to develop than forwards. Why do you think that is?
Chelios: You have to be smarter I guess (laughs). You’re the last guy back. The smarter you play defensively, the easier it is. I just think, when you’re 22, you can see the maturity level as opposed to a younger defenseman. And when you’re a kid, you’re likely not already labeled a defenseman for life. You’re doing all sorts of things on the ice. You’re having fun and working on skills and being creative.
USA Hockey: So it’s really just improving a kid’s overall skill set and then coaches can work with them on position-specific skills as they grow a little older and become more mature?
Chelios: As they get older, they’ll have a better sense of how plays develop and their skating skills and puck-moving skills have to improve. Kids have to work on their skills. Just keep them working on their skills and having fun. It’s a little about the clichés, too – doing the little things and just competing. That’s what makes a defenseman.
USA Hockey: You grew up in Chicago at a time when youth hockey wasn’t as popular as it is now. What do you see as the biggest differences between youth hockey now compared to when you were growing up?
Chelios: I’m coming from a generation where there was no structure. Basically, you just went out, worked hard and played. If you ask my kids (born in 1989 and 1993), they probably don’t know any different than how it is today with all this structure. With coaches, I think there is a fine line of structure and allowing the skill to come out. I don’t think I personally would enjoy playing as much now, with how some youth teams are so structured. Hockey is more fun when there are mistakes and guys trying to be creative. Now you do that, it’s frowned upon by some coaches. These younger kids who are 8 or 9 years old, I’ve watched them and there’s all these straight lines and structure and systems. To me it doesn’t seem like that would be as fun. I think coaches have to keep the game fun.
USA Hockey: What types of drills do you most prefer to use when working with young defensemen?
Chelios: Anything high-pace. Drills and games that involve a lot of speed and chaos and quick decision-making. It’s about getting these kids to make good, smart decisions quickly with how fast the game is played today.