Boy, was I intimidated the first time I encountered Zdeno Chara.
It was 2006 and I was a college intern at the Globe, dying to write about hockey. Veteran defenseman Jason York, seeing a mop of dirty blond hair saunter into the Ristuccia Arena dressing room after practice, nicknamed me “Kessel’s brother.”
I didn’t dare make a peep in the media scrum at the new captain’s locker. I caught myself staring at his elbow, which remains the largest that’s ever accidentally brushed my shoulder.
Chara has had that effect on thousands of people since arriving from Slovakia 25 years ago. He is the largest player in NHL history — 6 feet 9 inches and at his Stanley Cup-hoisting peak, a chiseled 260 pounds — and certainly one of the strongest, with piercing green eyes and a voice of a subterranean register.
“Early on I was scared of him,” said Brad Marchand, who iced a few bruises from Chara cross-checks as an 18-year-old know-nothing in 2006 training camp. “I almost looked at him as a coach — ‘yes sir, no sir, thank you sir’ — and avoided him at all costs.”
Marchand, like hundreds of Chara’s teammates over the years, was soon welcomed, shown the way of Big Z.
He was the most physically dominating defenseman the game has ever seen, and a sensitive, perceptive leader who demanded rookies be treated fairly. He spoke seven languages and demanded everyone use common English in the room. He had a 108.8-mile-per-hour slap shot and donned an Easter Bunny costume to visit children in the hospital. He climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and was as down-to-earth as they came.
Dealing with him on the beat the last few years of his Bruins tenure, I found him (at arm’s length) to be gracious, honest, and polite — even when his duties as captain forced him to clam up. He was immersed in his sport but at ease discussing the environment, world politics, sports science, human nature. We chatted about bikes when we crossed paths Tuesday morning, before he made his announcement.
At Legends lounge at TD Garden, Chara signed a one-day ceremonial contract to retire as a Bruin, in front of a group including a host of former teammates, the current coaching staff and management. Chara thanked dozens of influential people in an 11-minute speech, and elaborated afterward on his unknown next steps.
Marchand mused that the frugal Chara would be a good team owner. Patrice Bergeron all but shuddered at the thought of the perfectionist Chara coaching (his players, Bergeron cracked, would be in deep). Cam Neely stated the obvious: No one will ever don No. 33 for this franchise again.
A dad’s ballcap and sneakers is the uniform Chara wants to wear now. The proud son of Trencin has put down roots in the Metrowest area with his family. After carrying on the legacy of Eddie Shore, Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque, he is focused on his wife, Tatiana, 13-year-old daughter Elliz, and twin 6-year-old boys Ben and Zack.
Even Chara cannot endure forever.
“The biological age of your body . . . you can’t deny it,” said Chara, one of four NHLers to skate beyond age 45. The others are Gordie Howe, Chris Chelios, and Jaromir Jagr.
“But that was not the main reason. My decision was based on my family. You tell me I cannot do something, I’ll make sure I do it. It doesn’t matter the age. It’s not that.
“I had my share of battles and all these things. It’s time to be home with my family.”
Those battles are a legendary part of Chara’s captaincy. The time he was a wanted man in Montreal. The silencing of the Sedins in Vancouver. All the unfortunate forwards who ventured too close to Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask.
When I think of his intensity, I flash back to Oct. 3, 2018. The Bruins opened the season on the road against the Capitals, who were raising their Stanley Cup banner.
Home teams at NHL arenas have dedicated gyms in which to sprint, stretch, juggle, and jangle themselves into game-readiness. The road teams often make do with limited space: a barren hallway, an unused bay near the Zamboni.
Confines were extra tight in Washington. Waiting to talk to someone outside the visitors’ dressing room, I was standing in a vestibule near a couple of exercise bikes, a crate of stretch bands, and a flock of free weights. I was highly wary of disturbing anyone’s process.
Chara emerged. I blended further into the background. He wouldn’t have seen me if I was wearing a bunny suit.
He stared a hole through the walls of the rink, across town, and all the way to Kilimanjaro. This sinewy sculpture twisted and arched and rolled and flexed, flowing like a yogi and popping like a piston. He seemed to be reaching to access every fiber of his frame, reasserting control over every neuron. The man who drew laughs as a teenager, a gangly, awkward project, is now a brief wait from the Hall of Fame because he mastered that unique body, ever determined to make sure the world’s fastest game wouldn’t pass him by.
“I miss competing against him,” Marchand said. “It’s not the same without him. There’s not the same intensity in the room and on the ice every day. There’s a reason why our culture is the way it is now. It’s because of what he brought every single day.
“Teams try to copy it. But he’s one in a million.”
The Bruins got smoked that opening night in D.C., but were back on track in Buffalo 24 hours later. The following June, in the heat of the Cup Final against St. Louis, Brayden Schenn’s shot rocketed off Chara’s stick and shattered his jaw.
“I went to go visit him,” Neely recalled, and through wires, screws, and plates “he’s telling me he’s playing in Game 5. To me, that just showed everything about Zdeno. Not only the toughness, but the commitment, and understanding there’s only so many kicks at the can and he wanted to be a part of it.
“I give him all the credit in the world. I don’t know how many athletes could do that.”
The jet-engine Garden ovation when Chara was introduced before Game 5 carried the answer.
Only Zdeno Chara.