LOS ANGELES — This almost became Zdeno Chara’s choice. It would have been the wrong one.
“He really is a working class, blue-collar type guy,” said his agent, Matt Keator. “You always think of LA as flash and dash and Hollywood, but that’s not Z. He’s a Bostonian at heart.”
On July 1, 2006, the blue-collar star was entering the free agent market as the No. 1 prize. The Ottawa Senators didn’t compete hard enough to keep their top defenseman, instead focusing their dollars on Wade Redden. When the bell rang that day, Chara had multiple big-market offers in the range of $7 million-plus. The Bruins and Kings were two of his finalists.
“It was a fit,” Keator recalled, “but he saw the challenge with the Bruins. They were in a deep-dive rebuild. He wanted to be one of the guys they built around.”
Chara has been a bedrock since. Boston’s investment — five years at $7.5 million per — paid dividends with a Stanley Cup in 2011. But what if he had chosen the Kings, and taken a star turn in Tinseltown?
“I don’t think about it,” Chara said. “It’s the past. There were multiple teams that were interested. Los Angeles was one of them.
“I felt it was the right decision at the right time. I don’t know exactly what it was, if it was a gut feeling or what, but Boston was the right place for me and my family.”
Entering a rebuild in 2006, the Kings traded elite scorer Pavol Demitra — a friend and Slovak countryman of Chara — to Minnesota, and made new acquisition Dan Cloutier their starting goaltender. Both Cloutier and the penalty kill were worst in the league. After another dismal year, the Kings drafted Drew Doughty second overall in 2008. They got their Cups: 2012 and ‘14, with Doughty as a centerpiece.
Meanwhile, Chara is in his 13th season as Bruins captain, second only to Ray Bourque (15) in tenure. He and his wife, Tatiana — the couple married in July 2007 — have three children: Elliz was born in April 2009, twin boys Ben and Zack arrived in March 2016.
Keator said Chara, who turns 42 next month, expects to return on another one-year deal, and conversations should pick up after the Feb. 25 trade deadline. Last March, Big Z signed a one-year ticket with $5 million in salary and another $1.75 million in bonuses. He has already reached one (playing in 10 games; worth $1.25 million). He could hit two more, for $250,000 each, if the Bruins qualify for the playoffs, and win the Stanley Cup.
In his adopted home, Chara has always believed that is possible.
“There’s never been a discussion about him wanting to leave,” Keator said. “He loves the culture, he loves the hockey, he loves everything about Boston.”
Rookie right wing Karson Kuhlman, recalled after David Pastrnak busted his thumb, made his NHL debut on the third line with left wing Joakim Nordstrom and center Trent Frederic. Kuhlman’s parents, Dean and Jennifer, were overjoyed to see it happen live.
“It was minus-25 in Minnesota,” said their son, who grew up in Esko, Minn. “This is some much-needed sun for them.”
Not only was the weather fine, but a reunion was in order. While Mom had seen the 23-year-old skate for AHL Providence a couple times in his first full season, Dad hadn’t seen his son for more than six months. Both parents work for the Air National Guard, based out of Duluth, Minn. Two weeks ago, Dean returned from a six-month deployment in Kuwait, where he is a communications manager.
The undrafted Kuhlman wore a letter for three years at Minnesota-Duluth, including a captain’s “C” as a senior last year, when the Bulldogs won the NCAA title. In the championship last April in St. Paul, Kuhlman had a goal and an assist in a 2-1 win over Notre Dame.
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who scratched David Backes on the second night of a back-to-back, expected pace and passion from Kuhlman, who stands 5 feet 11 inches and 185 pounds. “He doesn’t have Backs’s size, but he’ll be in on pucks,” Cassidy said, noting that Kuhlman, if he sticks in the lineup, could kill penalties.
“He’s a good all-around player,” said Frederic, a linemate during their time in the minors. “He plays an honest, 200-foot game. He was out there for a lot of goals for us [in Providence], not many against.”
With Backes scratched, Frederic will go to the front of the net on the second power-play unit.
“Chris Wagner’s been lobbying for it,” Cassidy said. “We might have to get him in there. He’s hot out West here.”
Frederic, still looking for his first NHL point, wants to keep the spot.
“It’s awesome they’re giving me a look,” he said. “Definitely gives you a little confidence, even if you don’t do anything . . . I’ve been trying to get more puck touches. I don’t have goals or assists yet, but hopefully those will come.”
Let it roll
What’s working for Boston, which entered Saturday with a 13-3-4 mark in its last 20?
“Consistency in terms of lines,” said Cassidy, whose third line is the only one that still needs work. “Some of it was injuries. Some of it was evaluation. Some of it was the coach likes to mess around to see what he’s got . . . And maybe players are a bit more comfortable now,” he said, speaking to the injury recovery of Chara, Patrice Bergeron, and Charlie McAvoy.
Back at it
Defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (pulled leg muscle) returned after a four-game absence, replacing John Moore on Kevan Miller’s left side . . . Kuhlman on wearing No. 83, handed to him in rookie camp last summer: “It is what it is. Good number. Fills the back out.” . . . In two seasons with USHL Dubuque, Kuhlman (pronounced “Kool Man”) played for current Stars head coach Jim Montgomery . . . Brad Marchand, on beating two Ducks with the same stickhandling move on the same shift Friday night in Anaheim: “I wouldn’t say it happens a ton. They’re fun shifts to have.”
Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports.