By Sara Romano
In a lot of ways, the Wolves defenseman is just like other minor-league hockey players. He dreams of making the NHL. He struggles for playing time and tries to make the most of his opportunities. He talks to his dad after each game.
But there is one big difference.
His dad is NHL Hall of Famer Chris Chelios.
Jake Chelios, 24, is currently in his second season with the AHL Wolves — the same place his father ended his own professional career after the 2009-10 season — making the duo the first father-son pair to ever suit up for the team.
In the same city his father spent eight seasons as a member of the Blackhawks, Jake is determined to make his own name. But he certainly won’t deny the advantages that come along with having a 26-year NHL veteran as his father and biggest fan.
Growing Up at the Rink
Jake is actually a native Chicagoan, although he would argue otherwise. He was born in Chicago, but like his three siblings lists Bloomfield Hills, Mich. as his hometown, much to the chagrin of his dad.
“That’s one thing I’ve been telling them to change over all the years,” Chris told the Chicago Tribune. “They’ve been there 15 years, but at the end of the day, they’re still from Chicago.”
When Chris played for the Blackhawks in the 1990s, the family lived in Oakbrook, where Jake attended Brook Forest Elementary School along with his siblings, Dean, Caley and Tara.
“I remember running around the [Hawks] locker room,” Jake said. “There were actually a lot of kids when I was there—the [Gary] Suters, the [Ed] Belfours, the [Brent] Sutters. I do remember times like that playing mini-sticks in the locker room with those guys.
“I also remember going to Bulls games. My dad would go during the games and work out in the room, so I remember running around their locker room too.”
For the first eight years of his life, Jake was a Blackhawks fan. Now?
“Depends who’s asking,” he said with a laugh, “but probably the Red Wings.”
Growing up, Jake was a multi-sport athlete, even playing on the tennis team while in high school at Cransbrook Kingswood outside of Detroit. The family spent summers in California, where Jake and his siblings took advantage of the ocean and weather.
“There’s not many rinks there,” Jake said. “My parents [Chris and mother Tracee] let us play what we wanted. It’s not like we were forced upon hockey, it’s just the one that sort of stuck for me. We played every sport growing up and we loved it.”
All four of the Chelios children still have ties to the Chicago area through athletics. Dean, the eldest, plays for the Indy Fuel of the East Coast Hockey League, a Blackhawks affiliate. Both Tara and Caley play lacrosse at Northwestern.
A Bump in the Road
After appearing in just four games last season, Jake has struggled for consistent playing time in his first full season in the AHL. As the property of the Wolves instead of the parent club St. Louis Blues, he is in a tricky spot, according to Chris.
“It’s a tough situation,” said Chris by phone en route from Detroit to Chicago. “[Jake’s] not a draft pick, so he’s got a much bigger challenge ahead of him. The Blues would like to develop their prospects. He’s just got to hope he gets an opportunity.”
Growing up around the sport has undoubtedly had advantages for Jake’s development. Before joining the Wolves, Jake played four seasons at Michigan State.
Spartans coach Tom Anastos and Wolves coach John Anderson both pointed to an impressive level of “hockey smarts” in the young defenseman.
“He had the opportunity to be around a lot of people who had an impact on the game,” Anastos said. “He’s got size and he’s got hockey smarts. Those are characteristics that can give you a chance for sure.”
The Wolves coach said he sees a lot of promise in his 6-foot-2, 198-pound player, but that he has a tendency to get a little too relaxed on the ice at times.
“He’s got to find that happy medium of intensity plus comfort, because sometimes he gets so comfortable that he’s off in la-la land,” Anderson said. “On the other hand, when he’s focused, he’s a really good player for us. There are a lot of good things outweighing the bad, but we’re trying to get him to the National Hockey League, so there’s little habits that he has to clean up.”
With a Hall-of-Fame father, Jake has a built-in role model from whom to learn. Chris can often be seen at Allstate Arena for Wolves games, and if he isn’t there in person, he is watching online, Jake said.
“I’ve got to use [him] to my advantage, having someone in the house that knows the game that well and that experienced, it would be stupid not to use him,” the Wolves defenseman said. “So every game he’ll give me pointers and make sure I’m doing the right things.”
Chris currently works as an advisor in player development for the Detroit Red Wings, but has spent much of the season with the AHL Grand Rapids Griffins, one of the Wolves’ division rivals.
But the elder Chelios said he declines to give the Griffins the scouting report on his son.
“I tell the coaches, ‘Hey I’m a dad,’ ” he said. “I don’t go into the dressing room. I don’t want to coach against my kid. At this point, it’s a little too close to home.”
During games that Jake doesn’t dress, the duo sits together.
“I love watching him play, so I make every game I can,” Chris said. “The biggest thing, whether it’s my sons or daughters, at the end of the day I think they like it when their parents are at the game. Just like when they were kids, they love having my wife and I around, and that’s a good feeling.”
A Natural Advantage
Though Jake said he wants to stand on his own merit in the hockey world, he does not deny the incredible experiences that have come his way because of his father.
When Chris won his third Stanley Cup, with the Red Wings in 2008, Jake was in high school and old enough to relish the experience.
“We were in California when he got his day or two with the Cup,” Jake recalled. “We had a big beach party. You hear about it all the time and all the parties and the things people see, so just having [the Cup] out there on the beach, it was surreal.”
While the comparisons to his father are inevitable, Jake said he doesn’t let it get to him. He said he is simply focused on earning playing time with the Wolves and continuing to develop his own hockey career.
“With Jake, whether it’s hockey or anything in life, he likes to be independent,” Chris said. “He got away from Detroit. He’s not me. He knows that. He wants to make it on his own. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t listen to me, he always has. But he’s an independent kid. He’s got a little chip on his shoulder, an edge, and I like that.”