Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara will start his 21st season in the NHL and 14th as captain of the Bruins Thursday in Dallas when he and his teammates begin their 2019-20 season against the Stars. While Chara is proud of his individual accolades such as winning the Norris Trophy in 2009, being a three-time NHL All-Star, and becoming just the second European NHL captain to hoist the Stanley Cup in 2011, one of his proudest accomplishments is that he was part of restoring the winning tradition of an Original 6 franchise that had lost its way prior to him signing with the Bruins as an unrestricted free agent on July 1, 2006.
Just over 13 years later, Chara and the Bruins are coming off their third Stanley Cup appearance since his arrival and being named as the 18th captain in franchise history. The Bruins are a perennial Stanley Cup contender now and have become a destination team in the NHL for free agents and one that NHL players are excited to join if they are traded to Boston. Rising young stars like defenseman Charlie McAvoy and players in their prime like Torey Krug and Charlie Coyle are willing to take less to play for the Bruins in exchange for having a chance at the Stanley Cup every season.
In a candid one-on-one with Boston Hockey Now, Chara expressed how proud he is to have been part of the restoration of a storied franchise such as the Bruins and transforming them back into a winning team that younger players like McAvoy, Krug, and Coyle want to be part of.
“I do,” he replied when asked if he has pride in the fact he was part of essentially saving the Bruins name back in 2006. “I mean, you try to make a difference. You try to establish something and you try to be the difference-maker. Definitely, I felt in 2006 when I signed here, the organization and the team were going through tough times and that’s one of the things I really tried to embrace: The leadership and the guidance and the vision and what I saw was really needed at that time.”
Tough times could be taken as an understatement when describing where the Bruins were on the relevance map in both the Boston sports scene and the NHL when Chara arrived, along with fellow UFA, star center Marc Savard and just prior to that, general manager Peter Chiarelli. The Bruins had missed the playoffs three of the previous six seasons. Early in the previous season (2005-06) before Chiarelli, Chara, and Savard came on board, the Bruins traded away then captain Joe Thornton in one of, if not the worst trades in NHL history and appeared to be a rudderless ship. They needed a captain to lead them and upon signing with the Bruins, Chara was selected to be that captain.
How would Chara lead? By making sure that everyone in the Bruins room would know that they were part of the team and expected to fill a role and not simply be passengers. To Chara, yes players have different roles on a team, but they should all have equal voices. This was key in an NHL that was and has become increasingly younger in the salary cap era.
“I’ve seen it change quite a bit from the time I came into the league,” Chara said. “It wasn’t always like this. I think most of the young players, at least speaking for myself, you came into the league and a team and you felt like an outsider. There were not that many young players; there were not that many welcoming handshakes. You were there and pretty much somebody gave you the look that ‘you are here to take my job’. So it was different back then but I’m speaking 20 years back.”
From day one as Bruins captain, Chara made it clear that accolades and paychecks mean nothing when you’re part of the Bruins.
“I think that’s what we try to do,” Chara said. “We try to build a culture and reputation that everybody is welcome and everybody is equal to whoever is in the locker room, no matter how many games, titles, achievements, stats and so on that they may have. Since I came here, I tried to establish equally the rights of every player and comfort. I let them know that we will share the camaraderie and that there is not going to be a difference between young guys or older guys. Everyone is going to be equal and everybody is going to need to perform and play well.”
That first season Chara wore the C above the spoked B did not go well as the Bruins missed the playoffs again, but the foundation for a winning culture had been set and in the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs the transformation in the dressing room began to take shape on the ice. Down 3-1 to the hated Montreal Canadiens in the opening round, the Bruins stormed back to force a Game 7, and while they lost that game and were eliminated, the tone had been set for the things to come.
“It was not easy,” Chara acknowledged. “It definitely took some bumps and like we like to call it, you need to ‘weed it out’, and some things needed to be ‘weeded out’. It was nice to see though that after, not even a couple of years, in 07-08, we were back on track and started to see the first signs of that flick or the change happening. Then 09, 10, we started to really build on it and we built a really strong team that eventually ended up being a championship team.”
That 2011 Stanley Cup win is obviously the highlight of Chara’s career and his tenure here thus far, but how he and the Bruins got to that point and how they’ve maintained a level of excellence since then also provides a sense of pride for Chara. Chara knows he couldn’t have done that with the help of the 2011 Cup core that includes him, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask. That core would go on to another Stanley Cup Final in 2013, where they would lose in six games to the Chicago Blackhawks, and then the following season, win the President’s Trophy. In the next two seasons though, the Bruins fell on hard times again and missed the playoffs two straight times as things started to look as if they were unraveling and headed back to the days prior to Chara arriving in Boston.
“It could’ve unraveled, but you have to shake it off,” Chara said of those two straight springs with no playoff hockey in Boston. “You know sometimes you’re going to have years like that. It does happen. It’s very unfortunate, but we were going through some obstacles and challenges and it affected the team but we bounced back. That’s another sign of being a strong, character group.”
That group is like a family to Chara and the way they have worked together through the ups and downs is a major reason the Bruins are one of the most respected and heralded teams in the NHL today.
“Since , it’s not easy to keep it up there,” Chara said. “As you know the hardest thing for teams to keep making it to the semis; to Conference Finals, to Stanley Cup Finals, is to keep it up and to sustain that level of play, the level of play, the level of leadership, the level of culture and identity but I’ve been very lucky. For example, I have Patrice with me for 14, almost 15 years. Since 2010, we have Brad or 09, we have Brad, ‘Krech’, so we have about four or five players that are still our core that know what it takes.”
What it has taken is obviously a great job by management, coaching, and scouting, but also, again, for Chara and that leadership core to make sure every player knows they will be treated equally. With the recent influx of youth and skill, Chara has done his best to become an even greater mentor and almost player-coach for the Bruins.
“We really try to embrace the young players coming up, that ‘This is what it takes. This is what we like. This is what we’re all about, and we want you to come along to be part of it. Not just come along and be like ‘Oh, they’re gonna lead us; they’re gonna do this.’ No! We want them to be included and we want everybody to be part of it.”
Now as the Bruins and the 42-year-old Chara embark on another season, Chara is hoping he can help that core of youth experience what he did back in 2011 and win the 2020 Stanley Cup.
“We know how close we were and we know we can be there again,” Chara said. “Now we need to just go out and do it.”