For the first time in over a quarter century, Zdeno Chara will not wake up in the morning on Wednesday and head off to a National Hockey League training camp.
But after playing the most games of any NHL defensemen in league history – and always the hard way – this ultimate competitor is at peace with that.
Chara played the final two years of his surefire Hall of Fame career elsewhere, but on Tuesday he came back to Boston where he spent 14 years as captain and reached his greatest heights to close the circle and announce his retirement as a Bruin, signing a one-day contract to make it official.
When asked if he was sure that he was all done, the 45-year-old Chara half-joked “If you tell me I cannot do something, I’m going to do it. It doesn’t matter the age.” But he spoke of the biological clock that relentlessly pursues everyone and, most importantly, the pull that he feels from family with his wife Tatiana and his three children.
“It’s time for me to be home with my family,” said Chara.
While at times during his career he showed off a single-mindedness of purpose, he was not oblivious to all the people that helped him along the way. In a near 10-minute prepared statement, Chara made sure to thank just about everyone with whom crossed paths in his stops on Long Island, Ottawa, Washington and, of course, Boston – scouts, coaches, executives, trainers, equipment men and even the media. And, of course, he mentioned his teammates, many of whom were sitting in front of him at the press conference at Legends at TD Garden, at one point going down the list of 2011 Cup teammates by nickname.
There is the legacy he leaves that can be read off a sheet of paper – Norris Trophy winner, leading the B’s to snap a 39-year Stanley Cup drought, 1,680 NHL games and whole lot more. But as impressive as his vital statistics are, it was the the intangible legacy that may have been more meaningful to the Boston Bruins.
Quite simply, from the time he signed with the B’s in the summer of 2006, Zdeno Chara rebuilt a proud Bruin culture.
“You don’t win without it,” said Chara, who has not yet decided on his next career move. “It wasn’t just me. It was a team effort. I never would have done it without Patrice (Bergeron) or without Brad (Marchand) following Patrice’s lead. We set goals. It was hard in the beginning. Not everyone wanted to change, but it was necessary.”
To outsiders, Chara’s brand of leadership may have seemed severe. But to those on the inside, it was far more inclusive. He adopted a team rule that everyone as to speak English so that everyone would be on the same page. He also refused to call first-year players “rookies” for fear of making them feel like they don’t belong.
Charlie McAvoy – the next in a long line of great Bruin defensemen that stretch back to Eddie Shore to to Bobby Orr to Brad Park to Ray Bourque to Chara – was one of several young D-men who Chara shepherded as a rookie.
“I just remember the first day I came in and I called him “Mr. Chara” and he’s like “call me, Zee.” And I just remember how larger than life he was. He’s even bigger in person than I would have thought,” said McAvoy of the towering 6-foot-9 Chara. “I’ll never forget just the confidence he gave me, how he spoke to me, communicated with me. He just bred that confidence, telling me I could do it, saying I’m going to be all right. I credit him so much for the success I was able to have early on because of what he did. It might not have meant much to him but I’ve learned that that’s just his character and who he is every day. He never shuts that off. It meant the world to me and it really went a long way.”
The passing of the captaincy baton to Bergeron when Chara’s time in Boston was done two years ago was as seamless as it could be. Luck wasn’t the only reason that happened.
“Over the years I’ve picked his brain and we’ve talked so much on different things, the timing of stepping up and not stepping up, the state of the team. It’s been an evolution for me learning from him and vice versa hopefully. I learned a thing or two as I was getting older,” said Bergeron. “To me it was more the way that he prepared and the way he wanted guys to practice and just show up and do the work and then you can have fun later. But right now it’s all about business. That was one of the things Zee was really good at, is leading by example that way. I think that’s kind of in me as well but I did learn from him as well. He’s always first in line for drills and whatnot. I think that’s something that’s very telling for teammates when you see leaders competing hard. That’s something to me that does make a difference.”
Chara’s leadership-by-example was not always designed to be followed. One of the things that stands out for team president Cam Neely, who’d been planning this day since Chara signed with the Capitals two years ago, was when he shattered his jaw in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals in St. Louis in 2019.
“I went to go visit him at the hospital. And he’s telling me he’s playing Game 5,” said Neely, the disbelief still lingering in his mind. “That just showed everything about Zdeno, not only the toughness but the commitment and understanding that there’s only so many kicks in the can, that he wanted to be a part of it. I give him all the credit in the world. I don’t know how many athletes could do that.”
Tuesday’s ceremonial signing of the one-day contract will undoubtedly not be the last stop of his career victory tour. At some point, his No. 33 will be hoisted into the Garden rafters. Neely said that, when Chara decides on a post-playing career path, the door is open for him to part of the organization in some capacity. And in a few years, he should join Neely, Orr, Bourque and the rest of the Bruin greats in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.
Said Neely: “I would find it hard to believe that he’s not going to be there.”