TORONTO — At 39 years old, Zdeno Chara has struck most of his matches. The Bruins captain has dressed for 1,275 NHL games, eighth-most among active players. He has been nominated for the Norris Trophy 11 times, claiming the stick salute as the league’s best all-around defenseman once. He has won his Stanley Cup. Chara has represented Slovakia 11 times in international play, including at the last three Winter Olympics.
Many more opportunities to play best-on-best hockey are not likely to be in Chara’s future. He can stall the inevitable by training, eating, and resting correctly. But time is time, and as the oldest player participating in the World Cup of Hockey, the Slovakian strongman does not have much of it left.
So as someone aware of his circumstance, Chara, a Team Europe alternate captain, is appreciating every moment of the World Cup on a patchwork roster. Ideally, Chara would be playing for Slovakia, as he has in the Olympics and World Championships. But there are only four other Slovakians (Jaroslav Halak, Marian Hossa, Andrej Sekera, Tomas Tatar) on the roster following the departure of Marian Gaborik (foot).
Regardless, Chara has enjoyed competing alongside players from seven other nations, especially as a polyglot who considers assimilation his obligation in any situation.
“It’s been a great experience,” Chara said. “So many guys from different nationalities coming together and playing for one team. And really coming together so quickly.
“It’s been really nice to get to know them and be a part of that — to see how everybody interacts with each other, buying into the system and the team concept.”
On Thursday at Air Canada Centre, Chara played his ninth game of the month (three exhibition, three preliminary, one semifinal, two final), scoring Europe’s lone goal in a 2-1 loss to Canada. In one way, it’s a good tuneup for his return to Boston.
Chara likes and requires lots of repetitions. Mechanics do not come naturally to the 6-foot-9-inch behemoth, who has many working parts that need action to refine. His game should be firing when he turns in his Team Europe crest and replaces it with the Spoked-B.
But with reps come wear and tear. The Bruins will miss the playoffs for a third straight year if their shutdown specialist is off his game because of fatigue or injuries. Coach Claude Julien is depending on Chara to be mean, efficient, and thorough on each of his defense-first shifts. That hasn’t always been the case during the World Cup.
Like the rest of his teammates, Chara did not begin the tournament well in exhibition play against the buzzing North Americans. For all of the first exhibition game and half of the second, the 23-and-unders punked their graybeard competition by amplifying their greatest assets: speed, quickness, and skill.
Chara does better when he can lean on opponents than when he has to catch up to them. There were times, during the 4-0 clobbering in the first game and the 7-4 loss three nights later, when Chara looked as if he didn’t know what would happen next.
But Chara and the Europeans settled into a slower, kinder pace in their 6-2 win over Sweden. To open preliminary play, the Europeans surprised the Americans — and ticked off ESPN — with a 3-0 win. Chara, skating on the second pairing alongside Sekera, played 22:29, including a game-high 5:20 on the penalty kill.
The Euros followed it up with a 3-2 overtime win over Czech Republic, which included a Chara goal, to clinch a spot in the semifinals. The Europeans advanced to the final with a 3-2 overtime victory over Sweden in which Chara played 22:26.
In Tuesday’s first game of the finals against Canada, Chara was on the wrong end of a Steven Stamkos goal in the first period. Chara tried to carry the puck through the neutral zone, but before he gained the red line Ryan Getzlaf picked his pocket to initiate the counterattack. With Chara caught up the ice, Getzlaf started a rush that ended with a feed to Stamkos and an easy tap-in by the Tampa Bay sharpshooter, giving Canada a 2-0 lead.
Canada scored its first goal when Patrice Bergeron set up Brad Marchand. Chara was not on the ice for the goal but knew better than most that Sidney Crosby’s linemates were ready to do damage.
“Right now, it seems there are two teammates he has that I really know well that have great chemistry together,” Chara said with a smile. “They seem they’re finding each other really well. It’s working for them. They’re pretty much carrying most of the offensive part of the whole team.”
Chara played 15:38 against Canada, the least of any Europe defenseman. Roman Josi has been Europe’s No. 1 defender. But Chara will be the lead dog when he goes back to Boston. While he may not see as much power-play time, Chara will be Boston’s first line of defense in five-on-five and shorthanded situations.
On Oct. 13 against Columbus, Chara will start the first of his two remaining years under contract with the Bruins. What happens after that, both in the NHL and internationally, is unknown.
“When you’re younger, you don’t realize how fast it goes by,” Chara said. “You always hear about it. People talk about, ‘Enjoy it, it goes by fast.’ But you don’t realize how fast it goes by until you’re probably 10 years, 15 years in the league. Then you’re like, ‘Wow, it’s going really fast.’ ”