Zdeno Chara, a singular presence in hockey for more than two decades and a pillar of the Bruins’ success for the last 14 years, is moving on.
The 43-year-old former captain will join the Washington Capitals, signing a one-year, $795,000 deal. Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said in a statement that Chara’s “experience and leadership will strengthen our blue line and our team.”
Chara announced the startling departure in an Instagram post Wednesday afternoon.
“My family and I have been so fortunate to call the great city of Boston our home for over 14 years,” he wrote. “Recently, The Boston Bruins have informed me that they plan to move forward with their many younger and talented players and I respect their decision. Unfortunately, my time as the proud Captain of the Bruins has come to an end.”
Reached by phone, Chara’s agent, Wellesley-based Matt Keator, said Chara had no hard feelings toward the Bruins.
“It was a long and hard process for him, managing his family, legacy, what his role would be on the team,” Keator said. “The Bruins were great. They were communicative throughout. [General manager] Don Sweeney handled it very well. He was clear and concise. There was no gray area.”
Chara will play his 23rd NHL season in the nation’s capital, but he will not become a stranger to the Hub of Hockey. The Bruins and Capitals, new neighbors in the NHL’s reimagined East Division, will play each other eight times in 2021: Jan. 30, Feb. 1, April 8, and April 11 at Washington, and March 3, March 5, April 18, and April 20 at Boston.
The big man adds toughness to a Washington blue line that lost Radko Gudas to the Panthers via free agency. On a unit headlined by Norris Trophy finalist John Carlson on the right side, Chara projects as a third-pair, left-side defenseman behind Brenden Dillon and Dmitry Orlov.
Chara departs Boston as one of the franchise’s all-time greats.
He has been the premier shutdown defenseman of his generation, which spans from the clutch-and-grab 1990s to the freeway-fast game of today. The tallest player in league history — 6 feet 9 inches and 255 pounds — and surely one of the strongest, he lifted a sagging Original Six franchise to the elite during his run here, capturing a Stanley Cup, a Norris Trophy, and five All-Star berths along the way.
His future honors certainly include a Hall of Fame plaque and a space for his No. 33 in the TD Garden rafters, but first he’ll aim to make an impact with the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Capitals.
Chara, who signed a franchise-record pact with the Bruins in 2006 (seven years, $37.5 million), became one of the most significant free agent pickups in the sport’s history. The Bruins, bottoming out after trading homegrown captain Joe Thornton midway through the previous season, topped several other teams’ offers (including one from Los Angeles) for the rising Senators star.
The Bruins missed the postseason in Chara’s first season, but made it 11 times in 13 years after that.
His next contract, signed in October 2010, was for seven years and $45.5 million. In Vancouver the following June, he lifted the Stanley Cup higher than any player ever had, shaking it above his head so hard he nearly toppled over.
Former Bruins coach Claude Julien, who arrived a year after Chara, built his defense-first system around him. Julien left Boston as the franchise’s career leader in coaching wins (419).
Toughness has been one of Chara’s greatest on-ice attributes, in addition to his immense size, reach, and strength, and remarkable conditioning. Chara swallowed up opposing forwards and controlled the left side of the ice while logging a Herculean workload. He has averaged 23 minutes, 46 seconds a night for his 22-year career, a number that swelled to nearly 28 minutes at his peak.
The road to Boston
The only son of Zdenek and Viktoria Chara grew up under Communist rule in present-day Trencin, Slovakia, and developed at the hand of his father, a former Czechoslovakian Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler.
Several workouts a day, including pull-ups on an apple tree, helped build a fitness base that eventually helped Chara ride stages of the Tour de France cycling race and climb Mount Kilimanjaro. But the gangly teen could not crack the “A” hockey team in his hometown, relegated to play in ill-fitting hand-me-down gear and freezing outdoor conditions.
A Prague-based agent, Jaromir Henys, persuaded him to leave Trencin for the top-flight Sparta Praha junior team. In one season, Chara got himself on the NHL radar, and left for the 1996 draft in St. Louis with one pair of shoes, a pair of jeans, and a shirt.
Drafted 56th overall (third round) by the New York Islanders, Chara played a year of junior hockey in Prince George, British Columbia, and debuted in the NHL in 1997. He was a curiosity to many observers, some of whom merely wanted to see him pummel opponents.
Chara blossomed after then-Islanders general manager Mike Milbury traded him, the No. 2 pick in the 2001 draft (Jason Spezza), and forward Bill Muckalt to Ottawa for star Alexei Yashin in June 2001.
Asked by the Senators to do more than chip pucks off the glass and out of the zone, Chara became a two-way force.
Free to jump into the attack, he recorded the first two of his nine 40-point seasons in 2003-04 and 2005-06. He also saw time on the power play, a role that continued well into his Boston career.
With the Bruins, Chara reached the 50-point mark three times, with career highs of 19 goals (2008-09) and 40 assists (2011-12). Never stagnant in his development, Chara became a nimble attacker for his size as the league got smaller and quicker. He extolled the virtues of a strict plant-based nutritional regimen, believing it boosted his energy.
As he became one of the league’s elder statesmen, he helped young defense partners Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy acclimate to the pros. He eased the transition for coach Bruce Cassidy, who was promoted to Boston from AHL Providence in February 2017.
“Grateful to have an opportunity to coach Zee,” said Cassidy. “He helped me a lot. Zee probably helped me more than I’ve helped him.”
Chara signed one-year tickets to return in March 2018 and March 2019, for average annual values of $5 million and $2 million, plus performance bonuses. For the first time in his Bruins career, he opted to play out his contract this past season.
After the Bruins were eliminated in Game 5 by the Lightning this year, Chara said he hadn’t made his decision about returning, but would be “open-minded.”
Chara ranks 15th in NHL history in games played (1,553; sixth among defensemen) and 32nd in plus/minus (plus-288; 19th among defensemen). He is 22nd in goals among defensemen (205) and 30th in points (656). He also is 18th in penalty minutes among defensemen.
According to Hockey-Reference, Chara is sixth all time in defensive point shares (98.68), behind Ray Bourque, Scott Stevens, Nicklas Lidstrom, Larry Robinson, and Chris Chelios. He is the only one in the top 10 not in the Hall of Fame and the only active name in the top 25.
Only 10 men played more than Chara’s 22 seasons in the NHL. The record, held by Gordie Howe and Chelios, is 26.
Leadership off the ice
An inclusive leader, Chara refused to call young Bruins “rookies” because he disliked the hazing they could be subject to. He demanded that everyone speak English in the dressing room. When Bruins prospects showed up for the annual post-draft summer camp, Chara typically would be hard at work in the weight room, setting the tone.
His humanitarian efforts included climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008 with the African humanitarian organization Right to Play; delivering shoes, clothes, and Thanksgiving pies to locals in need; and being one of the first NHLers to publicly support You Can Play, an organization dedicated to erasing homophobia in hockey.
In June, he was among the first NHL players to speak out about racial injustice after George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis set off nationwide protests. He attended a Black Lives Matter protest in Brookline. He was a respected player voice during the two-day, player-led strike last week after the police shooting of another Black man, Jacob Blake, in Kenosha, Wis.
“We thought it was the right thing for us to do to take a stand,” Chara said at the time.
In addition to Slovak, he speaks Czech, English, Polish, Russian, German, and Swedish. During his playing career, he earned a financial planning degree from Algonquin College in Ottawa, a Massachusetts real estate license, and attended summer classes at Harvard Business School.
“He’s an icon in Boston,” longtime teammate Brad Marchand said after the season-ending loss to the Lightning. “It’s a pleasure to go to the rink with him every day and see the dedication he has to the game and has had to the game for so long.
“It’s difficult to do what he’s done, day in and day out. The way he prepares and the way he still cares so much, and he’s one of the most, if not the most, driven person I’ve ever met. And he’s going to be a Hall of Famer. He’s one of the best defensemen, best players to ever play the game.
“It’s been a real honor to play with him. He’s an incredible teammate and captain and leader and I don’t have enough good things to say about him.”
In Chara’s final game as a Bruin, the 195th of his playoff career, he logged 26:23 in a double-overtime loss. The last point of his Boston career was an assist on David Krejci’s tying goal late in the third period. Chara stepped up in the play and threw a pass that took a fortunate bounce onto Krejci’s tape.
After the Lightning’s victory in Game 5, the captain was the first Bruin through the handshake line, exchanging congratulations with every Tampa Bay player with his right glove tucked under his arm. Narrating the scene, NBC broadcaster Doc Emrick offered what sounded like a sendoff.
“It is likely the last time we’re going to see him in a Bruin uniform,” Emrick said. “I hope you don’t mind if I shift gears from hockey. The humanity that this guy has, over his span of time in Boston, he’s reached out to oppressed groups, he’s made donations of time and food and clothing, as a lot of guys do.
“But if he were coming to your home for dinner tomorrow night, he’d want to talk about you and your family and not himself. He’s a good soul, and you always see other people greet him for that reason. And a gallant player who did win a championship for Boston.”