- Courtesy of Chiasson family
By Liz Vukelich, Daily Sports Editor
Published March 14, 2013
Ben Holden blinked and did a double take to see if his eyes were deceiving him.
The CBS Sports college hockey analyst was in Ann Arbor for a Michigan hockey game in October 2011. He’d covered all the Michigan greats of the last few years from T.J. Hensik to Kevin Porter. But on this 2011-12 team, a team filled with players who were on the cusp of a national championship just months before, there was one young defenseman that caught his eye.
There was something about the way this player, Mike, hunched his back, crouched his legs and skated down the ice that started turning the wheels in Holden’s memory and took him back about 20 years.
As a hockey enthusiast and Michigan native, Holden naturally grew up devoted to the Detroit Red Wings. He’d seen scores of players pass through the organization in his life. But Mike resembled one in particular — a certain offensive defenseman who played in Detroit in the early 1990s.
Steve Chiasson was smart and steady. He played simple and hard. He spent 13 years in the NHL — and Holden was currently watching Steve’s eldest son, Mike, playing in his freshman campaign for the Wolverines.
For Holden watching Mike was like going back in time — specifically, a time before 1999, when Steve was killed in a car crash.
But there Holden was, in 2011, watching what looked like a reincarnation of Steve play at Yost Ice Arena.
“It was the first time I’d seen (Mike) play,” Holden said. “That was the lasting impression. If you put in a clip and see his dad and him, it’s scary.”
Mike’s been told so many times about the similarities between him and Steve, but he never gets tired of hearing it. And he never gets tired of talking about he man who shaped his childhood and helped bring him to Michigan — all because Steve enjoyed bringing his son to his ‘office.’
It was Sunday, May 2, 1999, and the Boston Bruins had just shut out the Carolina Hurricanes, 2-0, in the Stanley Cup conference quarterfinals to clinch the series in Game 6.
Steve registered two shots on goal in that last game of the season for Carolina, but that wasn’t important. Hockey was over, and now he had the summer to spend with his family — but not before stopping off at a teammate’s house after returning from Boston.
Susan Chiasson awoke her sons early Monday morning. She carried her 2-year-old daughter Stephanie into the room that Mike, then 8, shared with his 4-year-old brother Ryan. She perched herself at the end of the bed and tried to explain a situation that she herself was still struggling to understand. Steve was dead.
He was killed driving home from a party at that teammate’s house. When the wreckage of his truck was found, it had been discovered that Steve’s blood-alcohol content was more than three times the legal limit.
Mike didn’t believe what his mother was saying. So, to go prove her wrong, he walked out of his room, ready to go downstairs to his parents’ room where he was sure his father would be waiting. His mother had to have made some kind of mistake.
He went to the landing, looked down and expected to see Steve’s face looking right back up at him. Instead, he saw Steve’s teammates from the Hurricanes and their wives in the family room and around the kitchen table, sitting, talking, crying, grieving together.
Mike just sat, frozen, at the top of the stairs.
“That was when it sunk in,” Mike said. “I sat for a second and then it hit me.”
Steve might have been gone, but the Hurricanes stayed. After Susan was done calling family and talking to the media, she looked outside her window and into the street.
There was Mike, Ryan and about 15 members of the Hurricanes outside playing street hockey. They had all come to take the boys’ minds off the death, at least for a little while, in the only way they knew how.
“(My mom) said it was amazing to see the people in the community,” Mike said. “She said it was just a testament to the Carolina Hurricanes organization and what they instill in their players. She said it was just great to see the support with the tragedy that had just taken place.”
Steve and Susan never wanted to push their kids into doing any sport, but when Mike decided that he wanted to devote his time to hockey, they gave their full support. Like any attentive parent, Steve would take Mike and his younger brother Ryan to the rink to master the basics of skating.
The two would grab onto the boards or wobble across the ice, holding onto a chair to keep themselves from falling. But if the boys fell down when skating across center ice, they’d be sitting on the image of a large, red winged wheel, looking up at seven Stanley Cup banners and more than 19,275 empty seats while they waited for Steve to come help them up.
A regular day learning to skate at the municipal rink? Nope. More along the lines of an empty Joe Louis Arena after the Red Wings finished practice.
Mike was just 4 years old during Steve’s stint with the Red Wings, so his early years in Michigan are still hazy. His memories of the Hurricanes, though, are much more vivid. His family moved to Raleigh, N.C., in 1998 when Steve left Detroit after nine years playing for the Red Wings, when Mike was 6.
For Steve, every weekend in Raleigh was take-your-kid-to-work day.
“It was pretty prevalent, just being in and out of the practice rink, coming in on Saturdays and Sundays when he was getting a workout in,” Mike said. “That would be a memory that stands out, just me and my brother coming and just looking at how tall the sticks were, and how big the gear was.”
Mike and Ryan weren’t the only ones hanging around the practice rink — other players would bring their kids too. Ron Francis, current director of hockey operations of the Carolina Hurricanes and teammate of Steve’s from 1998-99 remembers how, together, the kids would run around the arena and crawl around the locker room.
The kids would even accompany their dads into the gym, and as the players exercised on the bicycles, their children would mess around on the open equipment.
That’s just the way everything was done. The kids felt just as at home at Greensboro Coliseum Complex, where the Hurricanes played from 1997-99.
During games, they’d congregate in what was called the “Wives’ Room,” a room full of all the family members of the players. During the game, Mike watched as intently as any fan sitting in the arena, following the puck and keeping track of when Steve was on the ice. But the real fun would happen during the intermissions.
“We’d go downstairs and we would play ministicks with all the other guys’ kids,” Mike said. “My mom would put it in her back and pull out two ministicks and two shoes in the corner of each side. We’d play for 20 minutes and then go right back up and watch the second or third period.”
Mike wasn’t far enough along in his own hockey career to take away game strategy or skating technique from his time spent with his dad or the other players. But the off-ice demeanor and way the NHLers carried themselves away from the game weren’t lost on him.
“What I really took away from them was the type of people they are away from the rink,” Mike said. “They’re such humble and down-to-earth gentlemen. They all put their families first (and) know that hockey’s just a little portion of their life.”
Though the Chiasson family placed itself in numerous social circles within the community, there was little question that the Hurricanes had created their own close-knit little pocket in Raleigh.
Francis lived a couple doors down from the Chiassons, with three children that matched the ages of Mike, Ryan and Stephanie. The kids went to school together and played outside together. They saw each other at team functions and parties.
They were their own little family.
No one has worn the No. 3 Jersey for the Hurricanes since Steve wore it. It hasn’t officially been retired, but it has been taken out of circulation.
Mike still wears No. 3, though. He always has. In fact, he’s worn it for everything, from hockey to soccer. He got lucky when he came to Michigan in the fall of 2011 — Scooter Vaughan had just graduated that May, leaving the No. 3 jersey available for the taking.
From the jersey number to the mannerisms, so much of Mike just screams Steve. When Francis has seen Mike play for Michigan, at times he swears he’s watching his old teammate — with Mike’s features covered by a facemask, there’s no easy way to distinguish him from Steve.
Sometimes, even Susan can’t tell the difference.
“She says she’ll just look, and it gets kind of scary because the (resemblances) are starting to become more and more prevalent,” Mike said. “She met him at this age so she’s starting to see some similarities now (with) hand gestures or the way we word things.”
Now that he’s older, Mike’s able to appreciate some of the finer aspects of Steve’s game, such as the way he manned the power play or the force with which he shot the puck. Mike says sometimes, he notices how he channels his dad when he plays — he likes to “take care of (his) own end first and make a good first pass.”
At 205 pounds, Steve was slightly bigger than his son is now — Mike jokes that he wasn’t lucky enough to get those genes.
“I think my dad was a more physical and offensive defenseman,” Mike said. “He played the game hard and played the game honest. He played the game the way it was played back then, and obviously the game’s changed a little bit now.”
There were two funerals for Steve. One was in Raleigh, the one that most of the Carolina Hurricanes attended.
The other was in Peterborough, Ont., where Steve and Susan were from and where the family still owns a cottage. There’s a memorial for Steve in a local park.
More of the Canadian hockey players that Steve played with or knew attended the service in Peterborough — including Wayne Gretzky, who played with Steve on the 1993 All-Star team.
“I just remember he came in, talked to me and my brother, pulled us aside,” Mike said. “I don’t really remember much of the conversation. He brought us out to his car and gave us a couple of signed sticks and a jersey. We still have that at home.”
Mike says the most important perspective he gained from all the time he spent behind the scenes with the Hurricanes was the amount of effort that everybody in the organization from the players to the athletic trainers put into the team.
It was that network that helped Mike feel so comfortable around the team as a young boy. It was that network that helped the Chiassons through the aftermath of Steve’s death. It’s that network that still keeps in contact with the family.
Francis has seen Mike play a few times at Michigan, making the trip up to New York City in November for the Frozen Apple game against Cornell. Former teammates of Steve still call the family from time to time, and Susan stays in touch with some of the other hockey wives. Mike sees several of Steve’s former teammates when his family summers at its cottage.
“There’s still a handful of guys who visit us in the summer who live in the local Toronto area,” Mike said. “We’ve got a pretty good group of NHLers who live in the area in Peterborough whom, in summers past, we work out with and skate with.”
The NHL hasn’t forgotten Mike. And Mike hasn’t forgotten it either.
Every time Michigan has played at Joe Louis Arena in the past two years — for the Great Lakes Invitational, the annual game with Michigan State or the CCHA Tournament — Mike has taken a minute to visit Al Sobotka’s office.
Sobotka has been the buildings operation manager for the Red Wings for the last 30 years. He drives the Zamboni during the intermissions and picks octopi off the ice during the playoffs. Though Mike’s interactions with the Red Wings were brief, Sobotka still remembers him — there’s always time for a friendly chat after Michigan finishes its pregame skate.
“I guess you could say I continue the relationship my dad had with them,” Mike said. “Hockey’s a small world, and they really are genuinely nice people. My life did come full circle.”
It was Dec. 14, 2012. Michigan had just dropped a 4-1 decision to Western Michigan in its final home series before winter break. Holden was outside Yost Ice Arena next to CBS’ production truck, chatting with long-time Michigan hockey announcer Al Randall.
From 100 feet away, Holden saw Mike emerge from Yost. He gave a wave, a friendly gesture to a player he’d only interacted with a couple times before, before returning to his conversation with Randall.
But instead of going home, Mike turned to walk down the parking lot, shake Holden’s hand, smile and say, “Hey Ben, how are you?”
Here Mike was, with his team coming off an embarrassing loss, and he took a few moments to chat with a sports announcer he barely knew. Holden was flabbergasted.
But he was also impressed. So the next night, while doing his commentary, Holden made sure to give a shoutout to Mike’s mom Susan, watching at her home in Henderson, Nev.
“I remember saying something that night to the effect of his parents did an amazing job raising him,” Holden said. “To me, the most impressive thing about Mike Chiasson is the person that he is. A good, whole-hearted, respectful human being.”
Mike has no doubts about where these qualities came from. Much of his character comes from Steve. Being told he channels his dad is one of the biggest compliments he can get — it’s something he strives for as much as possible in his everyday life.
“I’m very proud of my last name,” he said. “I’m very proud of the family that I came from. The way (my dad) treated my mom was amazing, the way he treated all of us kids was exceptional. That’s something that I try to hopefully one day be able to instill those traits and qualities into my family.”
But until that day, those traits and qualities can be seen on display at Yost every day.
On the ice, there’s a hockey player, but more importantly, there’s a man. And though eyes can fall to the No. 3 on his sweater as a quick indication as to who helped shaped Mike, that’s not even necessary— Steve’s there, and he’s visible with every check, every skate, every movement.
And that’s enough for Mike to know.