It has been a month since Zdeno Chara tossed his hockey gear in his car outside his downtown condo, drove by the Garden, and just kept motoring all the way to Washington. A new life, a new team awaited.
Just business. Hockey business. In the end, that’s what it was, as it is so often. The proud Slovak defenseman remained convinced he could be a key component for a Stanley Cup contender, and the Bruins respectfully told him he could stay here, albeit in a handyman’s role for a team committed to its own new beginnings.
“I love them as my brothers,” Chara said early Friday afternoon, reflecting on his time here and how it will feel Saturday night in Washington to face ex-teammates for the first time. “We have something that’s very deep and goes far back, and I’ll obviously cherish those memories, those great celebrations we had, winning the Stanley Cup.”
But, added the 43-year-old Chara, they are all professionals. The NHL is, above all, a business, and now he has a new home office in a 31-team corporation.
“We have to do our jobs,” said Big Z.
Two weeks into wearing his new threads, precious little appears to have changed in Chara’s playing life, beyond the color and logo of his uniform. Through his first eight games, he logged an average 20:29 in ice time and posted a plus-7, the latter figure eighth overall in the NHL and fifth among defensemen. Last season, his final as Bruins captain, he averaged 21:01 and led all Bruins with plus-26.
New team, same old Z, the towering grandfather clock perpetually ticking away in the corner, chiming on the hour.
“Terrific … as advertised,” said his new coach, Peter Laviolette, who long ago was heir apparent to be the Boston bench boss. “His game has been good. His presence is really good in the locker room and on the ice. He’s come in and provided good minutes, quality minutes, good leadership … he’s a solid citizen and a real good hockey player. So he’s lived up to his billing.”
We thought he would be here forever, eventually end his days on Causeway with a tidy Black-and-Gold bow tacked on top, the way it was for Terry O’Reilly, Cam Neely, and other beloved Bruins. But it isn’t always that way because, well … business.
Even the great Bobby Orr left town, much like Chara, departing as a free agent. Ray Bourque finally said “Uncle!” and asked to be traded, his dream to win a Cup finally realized in Denver. The WHA wooed away favorites Gerry Cheevers, Derek Sanderson, and Johnny “Pie” McKenzie. Phil Esposito, the greatest scoring center in franchise history, one day found himself on a Manhattan sidewalk, career and life forwarded to Madison Square Garden. Jumbo Joe Thornton was a Bruin one day, a Shark the next.
Chara could have accepted the part-time gig here, the money was about the same. Or he simply could have opted to retire, treated to a Garden farewell with requisite video montage, cheers, tears, and testimonials. He chose instead to keep pushing, the league’s oldest player preferring to tell Father Time to buzz off while he chased another Cup.
Most of us see that as a means of testing himself.
“Speaks volumes to his character and who he is,” Brad Marchand said earlier in the week, “that he is willing to make a change like that this late in his career.”
The choice is not without some emotional toll. The late decision meant Chara’s wife Tatiana would remain here with their three children, Elliz, 11, and 4-year-old twins Zack and Ben. Had he signed with, say, the Rangers, Islanders or Devils, he could have jumped back in the car and more easily zipped home for a 24- or 36-hour sense of everyday normalcy.
Asked Friday about what has been the hardest part of moving on, Chara flatly said, “Not seeing my family, my kids every day.” Ever stoic during his Zoom presser, he did not elaborate.
Weird. Strange. Those were the two words that came up most frequently during the week when his Black-and-Gold brethren were asked what it will be like to see him Saturday night (faceoff: 7:08 p.m.), his familiar No. 33 stitched on the back of his Washington Capitals sweater. Hard to imagine it will blot out the Spoked B he wore on his chest for 14 years.
“We will see his best,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “He bled Black and Gold here for the Bruins for years. He’ll want to show his teammates and everyone in the organization that he can still bring it. I would expect nothing less.”
Chara’s one-year deal was for a guaranteed $795,000, plus bonuses. His 10th game, scheduled for Monday night again vs. the Bruins, will pay out his first bonus of $230,000. He can make another $500,000, split in equal amounts, if the Caps make the playoffs (a fait accompli at this point) and if they win the Stanley Cup (what would be the second in franchise history).
The value of his contracts, dating to his rookie deal on Long Island, is slightly under $100 million. He is not playing for the money. Instead, it’s the opportunity to remain vital, continue a playing life now approaching a quarter-century, maybe once more hoist a heavy silver Cup high over his head as he did one fine night in Vancouver in June 2011. It’s a dream he wanted to continue here, one that his talents allowed him to take elsewhere.
“He’s one of the best human beings I’ve met,” said Capitals center Nic Dowd. “I’ve only known him for a month now, but … a very humble guy. And he’s been around so long. I mean I think he’s played in the NHL longer than some of the guys on our team have actually been alive. It’s awesome.”
Chara on Thursday night looked like a rookie making his NHL debut when he bolted to the Caps bench immediately after hammering home a slapper late in the second period for a 5-3 lead over the Islanders. Video of the moment played everywhere on social media Friday, showing Chara’s teammates swarming him at the bench, showering him with hugs and punches, like some soldier who had been in Europe for the Duration.
“It was a special moment for me,” said Chara. “I wanted to share that celebration with the entire bench, entire team. Since Day 1, they really helped me make the transition as easy as possible. They welcomed me with open arms and it was very helpful to get so much help from everybody … so I just wanted to share that joy with them. Just a great moment and great connection. Definitely something that I will always cherish.”
Chara will suit up Saturday for regular-season career game No. 1,562. He has moved on, though changed little. The Bruins have moved on, too, with Patrice Bergeron their new captain, a new season off to a promising start.
“I don’t think it’s going to be as much about me playing against Boston Bruins,” Chara said, asked how he’ll feel Saturday night with his old team in town. “These are two really good teams playing for two points that are going to be out there to grab, so I am going to prepare the same way just as I have been preparing for many years and many games.”
Just another game. Just business. With lives moved on, memories stored, the final chapter of Big Z’s Boston storybook not what anyone imagined.