*Part I of a two-part series on Zdeno Chara, his history and captaincy of the Boston Bruins.
When the Bruins were closing in on another playoff hunt without a marquee offensive defenseman, Andrew Ference was asked if how players meshed off the ice was as important as having the right hockey parts.
“Way more important,” he said, incredulous at the notion that it could be any other way.
Unlike most any Stanley Cup champion, the 2010-11 Boston Bruins lacked that elite puck-moving defenseman that could improvise around a forecheck. As it turned out, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci came all the way back and played that role in Claude Julien’s notoriously patient breakouts.
But to Ference’s point, to think of hockey players as widgets is not only impersonal, it overlooks what drives a team to reach for the heights. Which brings us to a different kind of defenseman and Zdeno Chara had only one day on the National Hockey League’s open market.
“It was a difficult decision,” said Chara, alluding to July 1, 2006 and waiting for his phones to ring. “Back then, as you know, we were not allowed to talk to the (inquiring) teams, we didn’t have those two or three days of availability to visit teams and talk to general managers or owners or CEO’s in person. Also, we couldn’t see the facility, for example, or visit the city because there would be speculation that you had some talks.”
Yes, phones as in plural.
“We hooked up another phone line because my agent (Matt Keator) said, ‘It’s going to be busy, it’s going to be a very short period of time when you’re going to have to make a decision,’ and he was right,” Chara recalls. “The teams called me and made offers and they needed to know in the next 10 minutes. And then you had, I think it was eight or nine teams pretty much the same offer. There were a few teams higher and one team was really high, and you’re kind of sitting on the edge of the bed and you’re looking at your wife and you’re trying to make kind of the right decision.
“It’s not quite easy because your head is spinning, right? And, as always, there’s teams you would expect and there’s teams that you expect will be there and all of a sudden they’re not and there are completely different teams putting out the offers so you’re like, ‘I didn’t expect that.’ But my pre-planning with my wife and my agent, we did some due-diligent work of making a list of teams, cities, players, goaltenders and so on. Boston was always up there, and I wanted to go to a team that was an ‘original-six’ franchise for the history.”
Theoretically, his destination could have been Montreal.
“It could have,” he said, “but it was not on my list, trust me.”
Boston was more Chara’s cup of tea, and the tea party was only starting.
“I really saw huge potential of me coming to Boston and playing my game and using my size and leadership, and I saw a huge opportunity to move the center of direction. I knew it would be a challenge and a pretty tough task, but I was up to it and I really loved the environment, the city, the people, the fans, the history,” he said. “I think that a hugh breakthrough was that (Keator) was from the area so, knowing him and telling me on the firsthand what it’s like. I knew Peter Chiarelli was coming from Ottawa and he knew me well as well.
“My plan was signing a five-year deal and in those five years it would turn things around.”
Zdeno Chara, Boston Chaos and Opportunity
If only every reconstruction project in Boston met its timeline.
Chara was aware of the chaos, the botched 2004-05 lockout-year strategy, the trade of Joe Thornton. There was an opening to lead, but the Bruins’ recent plight was not a motivator.
“I won’t say ‘fuel’ but I saw, because of so many different changes – coaches, personnel, players, Joe, it was different,” he said. “As chaotic as it might have seemed, I saw that there were some pieces …”
Brad Stuart was the centerpiece of the Thornton deal, but he would soon be moved to Calgary. While Ference could hardly rival Stuart’s skill, the former’s character was off the charts. The image of a finger getting stuck on his hockey glove still makes Boston fans smile.
Up front, a 20-year-old Patrice Bergeron had moved to the middle upon the blockbuster with San Jose that also yielded Marco Sturm. The Marc Savard signing closely followed Chara’s, and Phil Kessel had just been drafted.
Some experiments failed, Chiarelli kept tweaking, and there were many more players to lead than those who ultimately paraded Boston’s streets on duck boats. Chara led them all, but he dispels the rumor that he had stipulated the “C” in his contract.
“I was looking to be a leader, but you can’t put that in your contract,” he said. “When I came in, I didn’t expect the captaincy because we had a number of veteran players, but the management and coaches decided that we would go throughout the whole training camp and preseason without a captain and then before the season started there would be a captain announced.”
From their Ottawa days, Chiarelli knew what he had in a 29-year-old Chara entering the prime of his playing career, but he let the process play out.
The Bruins needed a year, a new coach and more roster tweaks (ie. Krejci, Milan Lucic and Shawn Thornton were key additions for 2007-08) before making the playoffs and igniting the city with a seven-game series against a highly favored Montreal team that (the morning after a 5-0 loss in Game 7!) resulted in a single-day, franchise record for season-ticket sales.
His offensive game growing, Chara would win the Norris Trophy in 2009, two years before the Bruins figured their way over the top. But it was his defensive game that needed the right partner to effectively shut down the elites, and Chiarelli tried Paul Mara, Aaron Ward, Dennis Wideman and Derek Morris before finally settling on Dennis Seidenberg.
In Part II, a focus on how Zdeno Chara and his captaincy has evolved with the Bruins’ roster.
Mick Colageo has covered the Bruins since 1995 for The Standard-Times (New Bedford, Mass.) and contributes to USA Hockey magazine and The Sports Museum “Tradition” event program. Follow on Twitter @MickColageo.