LOS ANGELES - Doug Houda, these days a Bruins assistant coach, was there from the start. It was a long time ago, early in the 1997-98 NHL season, but Houda remembers those early days on Long Island with that humongous, gangly kid from Slovakia trying to find his place in the game.
But it wasn’t so much Zdeno Chara’s 6-foot-9-inch frame that everyone was talking about in those days with the Islanders. It was how the unknown kid from Trencin with the perpetual smile went about his work.
“We just knew he had the world ahead of him, the way he worked,’’ said Houda, who later that season was traded to the Ducks, in part because Chara became an instant fixture on the Islander blue line.
“He just worked himself into the game, and here he is now, one of the best in the world, playing in the world’s best league - the guy’s just incredible.’’
Chara, who turns 35 Sunday, played his 1,000th career NHL game in Saturday night’s 4-2 victory over the Kings, paired most of the time with fellow veteran Dennis Seidenberg.
“Everybody put up a great effort tonight,’’ said Chara, pleased how hard his teammates played on a night of such great personal significance. “Everybody was blocking shots, making big hits, playing with physicality and Timmy [Thomas] had some big saves.
“There was so much extra attention today. As the game got closer and closer, you could see everyone was on a mission - it makes me so proud and humble to be on this team.’’
Coach Claude Julien said he noted the significance of Chara’s achievement to his team prior to faceoff.
“I told them, ‘When you go through a milestone like this,’ ’’ said Julien, “ ‘the one thing you want is a good souvenir.’ ’’
Chara, the 2010 Norris Trophy winner as the game’s best defenseman, is by far the league’s top shutdown artist, many nights nearly closing down the back half of the ice all by himself. He is strong, surprisingly agile for such a monster, and his long stick and expansive reach make it nearly impossible for opposing forwards to gain easy access to the Boston goal.
“Some thought he might be too tall, too awkward,’’ said Julien. “But because of his commitment and hard work, he’s one of the best in the league.’’
Ever humble and soft-spoken, Chara the last few days often repeated how much he loves his job, how he has equal passion for working out, and how appreciative he is of playing in the NHL. It all might sound corny if it weren’t Chara, whose life began in Communist-ruled Czechoslovakia, being told time and again as a kid that he was too tall to play hockey and should try basketball instead.
As a teen, he was mocked by his junior coach when he said he wanted to be released from contractual obligations in Slovakia to play a higher-level game in Prague.
“He said, ‘Yes, Zdeno, you go to Prague and show them how the game is played,’ ’’ Chara once recalled, summoning the mocking tone of his junior coach, who finally relented and gave the big teenager his walking papers.
But it was that short stay in Prague - a total of 16 games in the spring of 1996 as he turned 19 - that put Chara in front of NHL scouts for the league’s upcoming draft.
Weeks later, the Islanders, somewhat on a lark, used the 56th pick in the draft to select Chara.
Rich Peverley skated in the warm-ups, another baby step toward returning to the lineup after wrenching a knee Feb. 15, and Julien did not rule out the chance that the veteran winger could play Sunday night in Anaheim. “A matter of him inching closer to returning,’’ said Julien. “Good for him to get the feel of being around the team, so we’ll see about tomorrow.’’ . . . Nathan Horton, sidelined since January with concussion-like symptoms, has yet to begin skating. “No, not there yet,’’ said Julien. “He is working out, but he’s not to the point of skating yet.’’ Peverley last night was joined on the sideline by fellow forward Trent Whitfield and spare blue liners Mike Mottau and Joe Corvo.
A hot hand
Upon Peverley’s return, Julien will have to decide whether to scratch Jordan Caron, Benoit Pouliot, or Brian Rolston. Of those three, Rolston has been the hottest of late, contributing a line of 2-7-9 over the most recent five games. No one else in the lineup has contributed anywhere near a rate of 2 points per game, so Rolston likely remains on the job. Pouliot and Rolston assisted on Chris Kelly’s third-period goal . . . Without a power-play goal in eight of their previous 10 games, the Bruins went 0 for 1 with the advantage vs. the Kings . . . David Krejci struggled mightily at the faceoff dot, losing 9 of 11 drops . . . Jarret Stoll won 11 of 18 for the Kings . . . A tough night for former Flyers Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, each of them logging a minus-3. Richards landed one shot, the only shot between the two former Broad Streeters . . . Chara did not pick up a point, but he landed two shots on net and registered three hits . . . Thomas was in the Boston net, and the Kings went with fellow ex-US Olympic backup tender Jonathan Quick, out of UMass. This is Quick’s fourth season as the Kings’ No. 1 goalie and he came into Saturday’s game 32-19-11, 1.96 GAA, and .930 save percentage. The latter two categories were the kind of numbers that helped Thomas earn Vezina honors two of the last three seasons . . . The game Sunday in Anaheim begins at 5 p.m. out here, which means the Bruins are not likely to skate tomorrow morning, especially after working the night before in LA.