Now that Chris Chelios’ return to NHL action is imminent, it got me thinking about guys who prolonged their career well beyond what is considered “normal”.
Chelios broke in to the NHL in the 1983-84 season with the Montreal Canadiens, and was a member of the Habs until he was traded to the Blackhawks for Denis Savard in 1990. He played 9 productive seasons in Chicago before heading to the Red Wings, where he remained until 2009. By that point he was 47 years old, and though he was not the player he used to be, he also knew his role and adjusted his game accordingly. Still, age and mileage has not deterred Chelios. Instead of calling it a career after not being brought back by Detroit, he chose to continue playing in the AHL, with Grand Rapids, then back in Chicago with the Wolves. Lo and behold, he was brought up by the Atlanta Thrashers and it’s just a matter of time before he is back on the ice in the NHL. That’s an amazing feat. Nobody is going to expect Chelios to bolster the Thrashers’ waning playoff hopes, or to log more than a few minutes of ice time per game. His role at this point will be to provide leadership to the young players, and to be a shining example of how prepare and train properly.
I’m wondering if Atlanta is a place where aging players like to play in the twilight of their careers? Over in Major League baseball, Julio Franco ended his career with the Atlanta Braves in 2007 after a career that began in 1982 with the Philadephia Phillies. How long ago was that? In 1982, Ronald Reagan was the President of the United States, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was running things in Canada, people were not completely sure if Darth Vader really was Luke’s father (Return of the Jedi didn’t confirm that until 1983) and Sidney Crosby’s FATHER had not even been drafted yet (The Habs drafted him 2 years later). Baseball fans in the 80′s and 90′s remember Julio Franco mostly for his distinctive batting stance and his jheri curls…and I suppose his statistics as well. In 2007, and 2,500+ career hits later, Franco finally called it quits. Among his many distinguishing stats, however, the one he may be most remembered for is that of being the oldest position player in Major League history, playing the less taxing position of 1st base as he neared the end. Equally impressive is the fact that he played the majority of his career at either shortstop or second base, and it’s not a trivial thing to simply switch between the two spots. Both positions require agility and speed, but have key differences that set the 2 positions apart. That he was able to play both says a lot.
Both Chelios and Franco were notorious for their fanatical devotion to off-ice training, especially later in their careers, which obviously was a major factor in their longevity, but also likely a reason why teams kept these guys around long past their primes; what an example for younger players who still rely on their youth and sheer talent to pay the bills.
While Chelios is most likely headed to the Hall of Fame when he does finally retire, I’m unsure of Franco’s chances (though with the watering down of the Hall of Fame, and with what will hopefully be new perspectives on what a Hall of Famer is post-steroids, I hope that he will get in). Nevertheless, both were players were tremendous for the teams they played on, and brought value to their teams from the very beginning until the very end.
There are some obvious examples of players who stuck around forever. Gordie Howe remains the gold standard, as he played professionally until he was more than half a century old. In fact, he even suited up for one shift for the Detroit Vipers of the IHL in 1997, making him the only player to play in 6 different decades (40′s, 50′s, 60′s, 70′s, 80′s and 90′s). A tremendous accomplishment for a guy nearly 70 years of age, even if it was for only one token shift.
Can you think of any other guys who prolonged their careers well past what is considered normal?