The feelings of finality that come with the idea of retirement — the sense that either you’ve gotten everything possible out of the game or that time has caught up to you — never hit Zdeno Chara as he considered what his future would look like and whether it would be in Boston.
“I think when it comes, it comes,” the former Bruins captain said Thursday on a Zoom call from Washington. “And I think when it comes, you know.”
Even though the unusual circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic threw off the rhythm of the offseason, Chara made a deal with himself that if he started to skate and train the way he normally does, then he would carry on with his 22-year career. Once he stepped on the ice and threw himself into the process, he knew his time was still far from up.
“To me, that was an indication that I still have lots of gas left and I still want to go out there and do my thing,” he said. “That’s my motivation, to kind of still prove that I can play.”
That left a more complicated question: If Chara wanted to continue his career, would it be in Boston?
That eventually led to the difficult decision to part ways with the Bruins after 14 seasons as one of the pillars of the franchise. Chara signed a one-year contract Wednesday with the Washington Capitals, bringing to an end an era in Boston defined by his skill and toughness.
“It’s been a long process,” Chara said. “Since September, I’ve been going through some difficult decisions, and different options were presented to me. It was never clear what would be kind of the best fit. A lot of things were happening during the free agency. There were different signings, different trades.”
It wasn’t until a few days ago that the Capitals entered the picture.
“I just saw this opportunity that I didn’t want to pass on,” Chara said. “So I just decided that that would be a good fit for me and my family and I went for it.”
Both Chara and Bruins general manager Don Sweeney said they had several conversations, with the hopes of keeping Chara in Boston.
“Very appreciative of all the dialogue and both sides being honest in terms of where they were,” Sweeney said.
Sweeney added that he offered Chara a contract months ago. But the role that the Bruins envisioned for Chara, who will turn 44 in March, was different from the one Chara still pictured for himself. Sweeney wanted to work in some of the younger talent on the roster and described his plan for Chara as an “integrated role” with no guarantees.
Sweeney was disappointed that he couldn’t reach an agreement with a player who has contributed so much to the franchise.
“I was very sad,” Sweeney said. “It’s an unrewarding aspect of the job to see a player like that choose to leave.”
Chara said he has nothing but respect for the way the Bruins handled the process.
“I just felt that what was presented to me and what conditions were kind of attached to it, I just felt that I had more to offer,” he said.
For the first time since he arrived in Boston in 2006, Chara will step into a new environment with a Capitals team that has lost in the first round of the playoffs two straight years after winning the Stanley Cup in 2018.
“It’s definitely something that I haven’t experienced for some time,” he said. “But from what I heard from the conversations I already had with some of the teammates, it’s a great group of guys.”
Chara said he spoke to Tom Brady, who walked away from the Patriots last March after 20 seasons with them, and drew some perspective from the similarities.
“I definitely see a new opportunity, new challenges,” Chara said. “But also very much, I’m extremely motivated and I’m very much looking forward to go out there and play and compete.
“There are no guarantees. We all have to compete and play our best, and the most important thing is to win the games as a team. That’s just where I’m at right now. It’s something that I had to try. I didn’t want to have any regrets not to try and not go for it.”
Chara is in Washington quarantining under the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols and expects to be ready for the start of the season.
The Bruins will face the Capitals eight times this season. Their first meeting is set for Jan. 30 in Washington. Chara’s first game back in Boston is scheduled for March 3.
He said he couldn’t imagine what it will be like to play in the Garden as a visitor after making so many memories there.
“It’s going to be a strange feeling, I’m sure,” he said. “But I can’t tell exactly how I’m going to feel at that time. I guess I’m going to have to wait till that time comes.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.