UNIONDALE, N.Y. — June 22, 1996, the day Zdeno Chara was drafted into the NHL, a third-round pick (56th overall) by the New York Islanders.
Feb. 29, 2020, the day Zdeno Chara went back to Nassau Coliseum and helped the Bruins beat the Islanders, 4-0.
Twenty-four years and more than 1,300 games since the Islanders traded away Chara, the man they call Big Z is still going strong, doing his job on this particular Saturday afternoon by helping anchor a defense that led the Bruins with 7 points. Chara wasn’t on that part of Saturday’s stat sheet (which included a goal and two assists for Charlie McAvoy, a goal from Matt Grzelcyk, two assists from Torey Krug, and one from Brandon Carlo), but his 21:49 of ice time and 25 shifts were second only to Carlo. Chara is, without doubt, as integral a piece to this Stanley Cup-hopeful puzzle as anyone on the Bruins’ roster, a testament not only to personal longevity but also to professional excellence.
And consider this: March 18, 2020, the day Zdeno Chara will turn 43 years old.
That’s about four months before his fellow Boston sports senior citizen, Tom Brady, is set to do the same. Chara may not draw the same breathless conjecture about what comes next (he doesn’t have a Bruins contract for next season, just as Brady is about to hit the free agent market) and he has none of the megawatt superstar aura that Brady exudes. But he is a similar sports marvel nonetheless, one that should not be overlooked.
“I’ll be completely honest, it’s easy to take it for granted sometimes because he’s such a great professional and he just goes about his business and keeps his mouth shut and works so hard,” Krug said in the locker room after the game. “Before the game I was kind of looking around, being in this building again as we were a few years ago and thinking about Z and his younger years playing for the Islanders. That actually did cross my mind, so it’s funny you bring that up.”
I had to ask: “What year were you born?”
That made Krug all of 5 years old when Chara was first learning his way through the Coliseum’s labyrinthian underworld, mapping out the best driving routes along the Grand Central Parkway or Northern State to get to work, toiling under the banners that commemorate the best of the Islanders history, when the team won four straight Stanley Cups to open the 1980s.
That Chara is still doing the same work today, leading his teammates through all the correct doors, even smiling at some familiar faces along the way, well, that is something worth stopping to appreciate.
“He’s not along for the ride, that’s the thing,” Krug said. “He’s our leader, and everything we need of him in order to win hockey games. If you look around the league there’s not many guys his age leading the way, so it’s pretty special.”
The pregame buzz around the Coliseum Saturday was actually for a different former Islander who also happens to be a former Bruins coach, with the team retiring the No. 91 jersey of Butch Goring, a permanent tribute to Goring’s pivotal role in that memorable Stanley Cup reign. Whatever happens with Chara next season, it’s a foregone conclusion the same sort of ceremony for his No. 33 in Black and Gold will be held at TD Garden someday.
“There are some numbers that you just won’t be able to wear, and that’s going to be one of them,” said teammate Brad Marchand, whose beautiful wraparound goal midway through the third period made it 3-0 and really put this game away. “He’s earned that right. Good for him. It’s pretty incredible, the legacy he’s built. I’m sure he’s got a lot of good memories whenever he comes back here. It’s fun to hear stories from way back in the day about the way it was when he came in. It was a different game back then, a different life.”
Different, but the same, too. Chara is still pulling on that No. 33 sweater, still leading the way with his play and his work ethic, still showing the toughness that saw him take the Stanley Cup ice last year despite having his jaw wired shut after a puck to the face, still professing his love for the game that has given him so much.
“Definitely these are people I will always be thankful to because they helped me out a lot early on in my career, made some adjustments, so it’s always nice to see them and catch up,” a smiling Chara said. “We have different lives now — they are grandparents and busy and I have kids, but we always share the good times.”
Can’t help but wonder if the Islanders and their then-GM Mike Milbury might take a mulligan on the trade that sent Chara to Ottawa as part of a deal to acquire forward Alexei Yashin.
It was Goring who said this to the Globe a few years ago, recalling his time as Islanders coach and what he said to then-owner Charles Wang in an exit interview.
“He asked me for an appraisal of his team. And I told him, point blank, ‘I know you are thinking of trading Chara. Do not do that. It will be the biggest mistake you make in your life. Do not trade this guy.’ ”
And with a hearty chuckle, Goring added, “He didn’t listen to me.”
Lucky for the Bruins, no, he did not.