Zdeno Chara has blueprint for team leadership
In the Bruins locker room captained by Zdeno Chara, precise word selection is imperative. Take, for instance, the term “rookie.” Take it and toss it over the boards. For reasons that trace back some 20 years to his junior hockey days in Slovakia, Chara believes the word has no place in the hockey workplace.
“I had a couple of bad experiences,’’ the earnest, 6-foot-9-inch defenseman said of his playing days in Trencin, where, he recalled, rookies often were forced to perform demeaning chores or rituals. “And I said, ‘You know, if I ever am in a position to control that, I would totally change it, because it’s not fair.’ ”
So he has; in the Bruins’ locker room, newcomers are respectfully called “first-year players” or “younger guys” or “newer guys.’’
Chara long ago learned what the Miami Dolphins failed to see: Nothing good comes of team leadership gone awry. While the alleged bullying of Dolphin offensive lineman Jonathan Martin by fellow lineman Richie Incognito in Miami appears to be the extreme exception in pro sports, it also stands as a cautionary reminder for teams to maintain a healthy, respectful work culture.
In his junior hockey days of 20 years ago, Chara recalls, “It was just very immature things guys were doing to younger players — just stupid things that they did and you look at it, thinking, ‘Hey, why would you do that?’ It was just basically them proving, ‘Hey, I’m the older guy, I have the right to do that to you.’
“But at the end, it was like, ‘Really? Is that going to make you happy? Is that going to make you feel like you are dominant, or a better player, a better person?’ ’’
For those reasons, Chara, 36 — who speaks a half-a-dozen languages and is a veteran of more than 1,200 NHL regular-season and playoff games — instead focuses on communication and teamwork. Whatever a player’s age, whatever his experience, they all wear the same Spoked-B uniform and are engaged in a common purpose. No hazing or deprecating remarks allowed, although every entry-level employee in a Black-and-Gold uniform is required to work his way up the room’s cultural ladder.
“Don’t get me wrong, they do have responsibilities, just like any new young player coming in,’’ said Chara, who broke into the league with the New York Islanders during the 1997-98 season. “For example, after a practice, usually they are the last ones [off the ice] anyway, so we want them to help the trainers pick up pucks.
“In the locker room, it’s the same for everybody — pick up the towels, clean up after yourself, be responsible, be normal, as normal as you would be at home. Just be an adult.
“But as far as doing any stuff that they are not comfortable with, anything that they are not OK with, I would never allow that. I would never be a part of it.’’
In a room of many languages, Chara insists that only English be spoken in group settings. It’s fine for Swedish forwards Loui Eriksson and Carl Soderberg to chat privately for a moment in their native tongue, or for Chara and David Krejci to speak in Czech briefly during an on-ice drill, but otherwise it’s English. Boston accent optional. “If it’s like, say, six or seven guys, even at a team dinner or something,’’ Chara explained, “everyone’s got to be included. We speak English there, so everyone understands. No one feels left out.’’
Steering the ship
All locker rooms are different, and team cultures vary greatly from sport to sport. In the NHL, notes Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, the team captaincy role is a critical piece of keeping a team’s culture intact and its mind on task.
“The dynamic and the ramifications are significant,’’ said Chiarelli, who captained the Harvard hockey team in his senior year of college. “The NHL is like a huge ocean liner. When it starts to turn, it is hard to get it back straight.
“So part of the captain’s job is to make sure that if it is turning, that it is turning properly. And if it is turning a way it is not supposed to be, then try to turn it back. It takes a lot of energy, time, and caring and attention to detail to make sure it is taking the proper route.”
Breaking into a broad smile when apprised of Chiarelli’s ocean liner analogy, Chara concurred. “Oh, definitely," he said. “And when I got here, it was turned [the wrong way].’’
No longer, as Bruins newcomer Reilly Smith could attest. Smith, acquired in the offseason trade that sent Tyler Seguin to Dallas, entered the NHL as a full-timer last season with the Stars. According to the 22-year-old winger, the Bruins’ overall leadership has made his transition very easy.
“Joining a new team, you don’t know what to expect,’’ he said. “But it’s been great here. Guys are so welcoming, the older guys on the team, they’re the guys who actually make you feel the most comfortable here, and I know you don’t get that in most dressing rooms.
“Guys like [Chara] and Thorty [Shawn Thornton] and older guys like [Patrice Bergeron] — there’s a great leadership group on this team. And they don’t hold it down to one person. It’s spread apart between the older guys. I can’t see it being better in any NHL room than it is here.’’
Two special cases
Now eight seasons into his captaincy, Chara said the key is to keep dialogue open, direct, and honest. If he spots something that he feels needs correcting, he typically tries to deal one-on-one with the player.
“I always find if you sit down with somebody and talk to him, kind of pull him from the side of the team, then you give him a chance to speak and just to listen and take it as a human,’’ he said. “I am not saying I am going to be replacing his coach or his best friend or his father or his mother. I am trying to be myself, trying to give him my advice. And whatever he decides to do with it, it’s up to him.
“But if I continue to see it’s not being addressed or not fixed, then you obviously have to do more talking, or maybe take it to the bigger group. And then say, ‘Listen, you are going to have to correct it, or there is not going to be room for you in here.’ ’’
During Chara’s tenure as captain, two of the Bruins’ most highly skilled young players, Phil Kessel and Seguin, were widely perceived as ill fits with the club. Both were eventually traded, Kessel to Toronto and Seguin to Dallas. In both cases, said Chara, he, like Chiarelli and coach Claude Julien, had numerous discussions with the players, underscoring the team concept and what was expected on and off the ice.
“It comes to personal sacrifices you have to make or are willing to give up,’’ said Chara, speaking specifically about Kessel and Seguin. “And it’s not always easy to do. I know they are good people. Obviously, really talented, great players. But sometimes you do have to make sacrifices and be willing to do — or not to do —
Chara emphasized that a decision to trade a player is not in the captain’s purview. But he also made clear that he tried numerous times to address different issues with both players, though he would not be specific. “We tried,’’ he said in summary.
“That speaks volumes, by the way,’’ said Chiarelli, apprised of Chara’s summation. “When he says he tried, it doesn’t mean he failed.’’
Learning to delegate
An alternate captain in his days with the Islanders and Ottawa Senators, Chara had been the captain here for a season when Julien was hired as coach. By Julien’s eye, the captain he inherited needed some fine-tuning; Chara was caring so much that “he was trying to do everybody’s job.’’
Ultimately, said Julien, Chara adopted a simpler, more defined role on the ice, and began delegating leadership throughout the team.
“Utilizing the leaders around him and that kind of stuff,’’ said Julien. “He’s just gotten better and better at it. So when he does have to make a stand, he has other people helping him out.’’
Julien and his captain are in perfect synch when it comes to “rookies,” a term Julien also cares not to use. All players should be treated with respect, said the coach, though younger players must understand that veterans are due respect and deference in return.
“It’s not about hazing,’’ Julien reminded. “It’s not about anything else. If we’re going to be successful, we all have to be on the same page.’’
Nearly eight years gone by, Chara acknowledges that his early role as captain was harried. He sees himself now as a better delegator, calling on other veterans such as alternate captains Bergeron and Chris Kelly to aid him, viewing the overall job like that of running a company.
“Everyone has jobs, and everyone is important,’’ he said. “Whatever it is, everyone has to run toward the same goal.”