Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy are easily cast as hockey’s odd couple, a defensive pairing disparate enough in age and size to make it impossible not to notice their differences.
Here is Chara, drafted into the NHL in 1996. Here is McAvoy, born into this world a year later. Here is Chara, barreling onto the ice in a 6-foot-9-inch package of brute force. Here is McAvoy, racing into a spot beside him as a 6-foot ball of speedskating energy. Here is Chara, a 42-year-old father of three, veteran captain of the venerable Bruins franchise. And here is McAvoy, exactly half his partner’s age, the young star and cornerstone of said franchise’s future.
In the words of fellow defenseman Torey Krug: “They create an interesting pair.”
Which leads to the natural question: What could they possibly have in common?
“Some funny answers just ran through my head that I’m not going to say, but age doesn’t really separate the conversations,” Chara said. “It’s our personalities that get along.”
“He’s got a good sense of humor — that’s something you can always appreciate,” McAvoy said. “Maybe not too much stuff in common.
“Obviously he’s further along in his life, he’s got a beautiful family and all those things that will be very important to me one day. For now I think we find our middle in the fact that we both just love the game. We have a lot of fun just playing together.”
Interesting, in all the best ways that word can be interpreted. Sure, there are easy jokes about father-son outings, blank stares regarding shared interests in television or music, and ribbing about comparative nightlife activities. And no doubt those get told within the confines of this tight-knit locker room, fueling plenty of the laughter and sense of fraternity that bonds this group.
But as the Bruins head toward the Stanley Cup Final opener next Monday at TD Garden, the top defensive pairing of Chara and McAvoy is as integral to what has delivered them to the precipice of a championship as any of the other talented combinations that take the ice.
With Chara’s return to practice Monday after missing the Eastern Conference clincher in Carolina making it almost certain he’ll be back for Game 1 of the Cup, coach Bruce Cassidy’s best option for taking on an opponent’s top line should be ready to go.
The first reason it works so well is a credit to the notion of chemistry and teamwork, because Chara is willing to pass on his wealth of experience rather than be threatened by a newer, younger version of himself and because McAvoy is eager to absorb the lessons of a mentor rather than feeding an ego that could be telling him he doesn’t need it.
The second reason it works so well is a credit to the notion of complementary hockey, because Chara is so darn responsible defensively and willing to take on any physical challenge there is, and because McAvoy is so darn skilled and fast, ready to break out with the puck and contribute on the offensive end.
“I think they’ve evolved knowing what the strength of each other is and allowing them to play to that,” Cassidy said. “They’re both good players. I think when you put two good players together that have the passion they do, the will to win, they’re going to find a way to coexist. And that’s the way it’s got to work out for them.
“Zee is a mentor, we saw it with [Brandon] Carlo the year before, and Charlie’s receptive to that. He’s got a lot of respect for the older guys in the room yet he’s still himself.”
In other words, it only works when both players buy in, and these two do. Anyone in the room can see it.
“I think they balance each other pretty well,” goalie Tuukka Rask said. “Zee is very good in the D zone, clearing the way for me to see the puck, and Charlie is more like a skater and playmaker. I think there’s a balance that’s great.”
“Obviously, the experience that Zee has is something he shares and is doing that really well,” Patrice Bergeron said. “Chuck is the type of young guy that wants to learn and listen to everything Zee has to share.
“As far as their playing style, it works hand-in-hand, where Chuck is going to go a little more at the offensive end and try to get the puck out of the zone with his speed and Zee is just so smart and defensively sound and kind of recovers it if needed. It’s obviously a great pairing.”
And unique, and not just for the age or size difference.
“I don’t want to say this in a bad way, but as other D pairings, we can’t really learn much from how they play on the ice because each individual player is such a special talent,” Krug said.
“Zee being as big as he is, he plays different than we do. Obviously along the same structure and with the same guidelines from the coaching staff, but I can’t watch Z. He’s a foot taller than me. He plays a different style.
“And Charlie’s a special talent. The way that he plays, it’s just instinctual. He’s such a competitor. It’s tough to follow a player like that as well.
“We’re very lucky to have them on our side.”