Detroit — At first, it seemed odd to see Chris Chelios in a Red Wings’ uniform.
Now, it seems strange to hear he is leaving.
The trade, March 23, 1999, that brought the Wings ancient nemesis from an archrival, the Blackhawks, raised eyebrows.
Chelios was the enemy. Besides, what did the 37-year-old have left?
Plenty, as it turned out.
Now, almost 20 years later, it is as if Wings fans consider him their own.
Amid his long interaction with Detroit, as player, personality and businessman, Chelios became one of its boosters. He invested treasure and toil in the town.
But Chelios announced Thursday he is leaving to return to Chicago, where he was born 56 years ago.
The tough guy, long reviled by fans of the opposition, said he wants to be closer to his mom.
“For me, this is an opportunity to move back to Chicago to be closer to family, and in particular my mother,” Chelios said, in a statement released by the Red Wings.
“I began to seriously consider moving home last February after the passing of my father,” he said. “Now that my children have all graduated, it seems like the ideal time for my wife, Tracee, and I to make the move.
“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being a part of the Red Wings organization over the last 19 years.”
Chelios grew up near Chicago and attended high school in the city, before his family moved to California.
A Blackhawks fan as a child, he focused more on the Bears. He idolized the legendarily brutal linebacker, Dick Butkus.
“Admittedly, I was skeptical about the 1999 trade that brought me to Detroit,” he said, of the Red Wings relinquishing the defenseman Anders Eriksson and two draft choices, in a lopsided deal executed by GM Ken Holland.
“As a Chicago guy who was playing for the Blackhawks at the time, we despised those Detroit teams of the 1990’s,” he said.
“After the trade, however, things changed quickly and I began to feel right at home.”
In Detroit, Chelios solidified a blue line that, season-after-season was the deepest in the league. He was the sort of grizzled, experienced defenseman that Coach Scotty Boman rode to Stanley Cups.
Chelios won the Stanley Cup in 2002 and 2008, with the Red Wings.
Nine years after the 37-year-old arrived, he was still winning cups.
Take that, Chicago.
In 2001-02, he played in 79 games and had six goals and 33 assists in the regular season.
In 23 playoff games he had a goal and 14 assists, while providing his usual constancy and occasional intimidation on the blue line.
“What an unbelievable experience, playing on some of the greatest teams in league history, with some of the greatest players of all-time,” Chelios said. “I consider myself extremely lucky to have been a part of it all.
“The Cup-winning teams in 2002 and 2008 are the obvious highlights, but I’m grateful for every chance I had to put on a Red Wings sweater.”
He is, inarguably, among the greatest defensemen of all time, and among the greatest NHL players born in the United States.
Chelios is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, and holds the NHL record for games played by a defenseman (1,651), which is fifth overall.
He is tied with Gordie Howe for the most seasons played in the NHL (26).
In recent years, Chelios coached and performed an advisory role in management, in Detroit and Grand Rapids.
“I would like to thank everyone in the Red Wings organization, starting with the Ilitch family — Mrs. Ilitch, Chris Ilitch, and, of course, the late Mr. I,” he said.
“There’s a reason the Red Wings are so revered around the National Hockey League and it starts at the top with ownership. The Ilitch family’s dedication and passion for both the Red Wings and the city of Detroit is second-to-none.”
Chelios also thanked Holland.
“I’ve learned so much from him, both as a player and during my time on the management side,” he said. “Ken is a world-class general manager and he’s an even better friend and mentor.
“I have no doubt the Red Wings will be Stanley Cup contenders again in the near future.”