2006 was a formative year. That summer, I graduated from high school and headed down the road to college. For the Boston Bruins, their fortunes started to change a few weeks later with the signing of a towering defenseman Zdeno Chara, then formerly of the New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators.
On Tuesday morning, Chara retired after logging a league record 1,620 games at his position, capping his career back in Boston on a one-day pact with the Black and Gold after spending the last two seasons in Washington and Long Island respectively.
Zdeno Chara’s Impact on Boston extended well past TD Garden’s Ice
In Boston, the hallmark of beloved Bruins centers on a simply quality: toughness, determination, and leadership on and off the ice. Chara had all three in spades throughout his career, but especially in Boston.
According to HockeyFights.com, Chara dropped the gloves 31 times as a member of the Boston Bruins. Chara could deliver crushing checks with his large frame too.
(Author’s Note: Yes, this quality was not without controversy, especially after a nasty and unfortunate hit on Montreal Canadien forward Max Pacioretty in the Bell Centre that led to many Habs fans calling for criminal charges to be brought against Big Z. Those charges were never levied by prosecutors in Quebec, despite public outcry.)
With Zdeno Chara retiring, there are now no active NHL players who have lost a playoff series to the Maple Leafs. 🤯 pic.twitter.com/AdSg02EsCp
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) September 20, 2022
Leading By Example
In 2011, Chara’s leadership led to him being the first Bruins captain to hoist the Stanley Cup since Johnny Bucyk in 1972. That season, Chara tallied 44 points to lead an exceptionally balanced Bruins squad en route to the championship.
That 2011 team was special and Chara’s leadership was probably the differentiator in many of their battles along the way to the championship. Few Bruins teams have had the mettle like that squad to go through seven games against the hated Habs, then, exorcise some serious playoff demons against the Philadelphia Flyers, and withstand the grind of Guy Boucher and the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 1-3-1 neutral zone trap for seven nights.
All of those obstacles and you still had a President’s Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks team standing between you and some long-awaited time with Lord Stanley. Those seven games with Vancouver had everything including fights, a possible biting incident, a series-shifting high hit, and yes, an allegedly staged, but incredibly well-framed photo during a riot in the streets of Vancouver when all was said and done.
Without Chara as their backbone, there’s a great chance that the Bruins would still be chasing championship glory now fifty seasons on. His mere presence was that important on the ice to the franchise.
Philanthropy and Power Plays
How important was Zdeno Chara to the city at large? In a word, his impact on Boston was and still is immense.
I’ve always thought that Chara’s big Slovakian shoulders helped him carry Boston’s hockey hopes that had been getting bigger and bigger as time passed between Stanley Cup Championships. This quality of his is not dissimilar to his baseball counterpart in David Ortiz.
During this city’s unprecedented run of championships, players like Chara and Ortiz were effective leaders in uniform and the community. The number of pictures taken of Chara during different charitable events around town struck a chord with Boston sports fans.
There was always the perfect costume for him to wear on Halloween trips to see sick children at local hospitals, there were more than enough pies from local bakeries to stack en route to a local food bank for Thanksgiving, and there were always enough shopping carts at the local Target to fill with toys to help make the holidays just a little brighter for local kids who might not be getting much from Santa Claus that year.
In 2013, Chara led a Bruins team into the postseason that lost the division title on the final day of the season. Earlier that month, the city of Boston still reeling from the Boston Marathon bombing, and the first team in town to play was the Bruins.
This national anthem still stirs the soul, and likely always will.
BREAKING NEWS: Zdeno Chara has announced his retirement from the NHL after 25 seasons. He played in 1,680 career regular season games, scoring 209 goals and 680 points. pic.twitter.com/K9J6XhssT2
— SiriusXM NHL Network Radio (@SiriusXMNHL) September 20, 2022
Maybe it’s the lunch pail nature of the sport or the deep connection the players have with the fan base, but deep down, Boston is one hell of a hockey town. When the Bruins are playing exceptionally well, there’s no sports electricity quite like it here.
As the city needed an escape from what happened on what should’ve been a joyful April afternoon on Boylston Street, their hockey team led by Chara, provided exactly what they needed. That 2013 team defied the odds in the first round against Toronto and then cruised past the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins en route to a date with the Chicago Blackhawks, fresh off a President’s Trophy campaign of their own.
That 2013 championship slipped through their fingers as injuries piled up and the fatigue of a shortened season sprint set it, but there were other memorable moments left to be had in Boston for Chara.
The best encapsulation of Zdeno Chara took place during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. With a lot more salt than pepper sprinkled in his playoff beard, Chara was not quite the player he was eight or six years earlier, but he was contributing to the team and with his leadership as his calling card, he pushed this Bruins team into the playoffs.
During Game 4 of that series, Chara took a puck to the jaw and didn’t return. In Game 5, there he was taking warmups and ready to play before Game 5 at home.
When TD Garden emcee Jim Martin announced Chara’s name to the sold-out crowd of 17,850, they let their team’s captain know how much they appreciated him with every ounce of vocal power they had.
You can say a lot about Zdeno Chara, and I certainly have in the paragraphs preceding these final few, but his impact on Boston hockey in 16 years is immense.
His toughness was not something to trifle with, especially if you were wearing Habs colors in the mid-aughts or just Patrick Maroon, whom Chara fought five times. His determination helped push the Bruins to heights they hadn’t seen since people were cheering on players named Esposito, Cashman, and Orr.
His dedication to the local community made him an even bigger fan favorite than any goal, assist, fight, or shift he ever skated while wearing a Bruins sweater ever did.
Zdeno Chara signed his first Bruins contract a week after my high school graduation and signed his last a full week before I turn 35.
Time flies when you’re having fun.