Part II of a two-part series on Zdeno Chara, his captaincy and the future of the Boston Bruins.
The biggest decision of Zdeno Chara’s hockey career turned out to be the pivotal moment not only for the Boston Bruins’ franchise recovery, rebuild and march to the Stanley Cup in 2011, it has further defined the ongoing building of team- and sport-wide culture.
NHL teams are taking notice and are on a constant lookout to identify and groom such a person to lead them like Chara has led the Bruins.
Like no other sport and probably because of its unique cauldron of speed, skill, violence, emotional swings and dependency on the team concept, success in ice hockey is as reliant on the intangibles as the tangibles, on improvement as much as gift, on resiliency as much as talent, on spirit as much as strategy, and on heart as much as mind.
Losing a superstar talent can devastate a team but not because of aggregate goal totals, it’s because of what that player meant to his team in every dimension from skill to leadership to the setting of examples.
“You have (Chara) in his prime, and his prime is a little different for him with age. He learned to adapt, and we built around him,” said former Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “There’s guys that you see leading this team now that learned from ‘Z.’ Not having gone to another organization and seeing the critical mass … and what it takes to change it and move it, it’s hard. And there’s a lot of unintended consequences that happen. To have ‘Z’ steering the ship … it’s immeasurable. The Bruins were fortunate.”
Chara brought sustainable culture
As the world’s premier shutdown defenseman, Chara has posed a massive problem for opponents’ elite forwards. As captain, he has thought things out and has been unafraid to take on time-honored traditions like rookie hazing. In his mind, success depends on a positive atmosphere necessarily including a mutual respect among teammates.
“It’s so hard to make it, to grow it,” said Chara of winning culture. “It’s all about people. When you look at – other teams have very skilled players, goal scorers or first-rounders and all that. But it’s all about the character and it’s all about heart and it’s all about, like, whoever is willing to buy in and do what the identity or the culture is.
“I always say, to me it’s always about the heart of the player because, once you know that he’s willing to do certain things, the rest of it is up to coaches to show him the system. It’s up to him to improve his skills, but if you have a skill and you have that but you don’t have the character and will to do whatever team identity is or culture, then it’s not going to work.”
Chara a big-picture leader
Coaches often allude to what they learned reading about military heroes, but Chara looks at an entire branch of the armed services.
“I like to compare it to the Navy,” he said. “They always go through all that training, and they try to pick the right personnel, the right personalities, for whatever the team they will be on later on in their career – the SEAL team (for example).
“Because they don’t look for the most accurate shooter, right? At the first, they look for somebody who’s going to do whatever it takes because, then, they will put him on the stand and tell him, ‘You’re going to shoot thousands of rounds until you’ll be so accurate that you become one of the best shooters or snipers. But we want to make sure you have everything here (pointing to his heart), what it takes, because the rest of it we will teach you.’ So I think that’s, here, you get people like players here that accept their role and are willing to take that hard and buy into the culture and the identity because the rest of it is always in the system.”
When teams lack a culture of success, they wonder how are they ever going to get it back.
It’s no wonder the Bruins continue to place significant value on a player approaching his 43rd birthday (March 18).
Chara’s one-year contract for 2019-20 carries a $2 million cap hit but guarantees another $1.5 million ($1.25M when he played his 10th games and another $250,000 assuming the Bruins make the playoffs). He will get another $250,000 if the Bruins win the Stanley Cup.
As a shutdown defenseman, Chara has mentored young players like Brandon Carlo, Matt Grzelcyk and his regular partner Charlie McAvoy. As captain, he has instituted a culture of mutual respect in which he and fellow leaders Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Brad Marchand and Tuukka Rask allow a personality like David Pastrnak to take center stage and, at the same time, make sure everyone understands the equal importance of Sean Kuraly, Chris Wagner and Joakim Nordstrom.
Chara backs up his talk by never uttering a word about the reduction in his former offensive roles (ie. he is no longer on the powerplay and never participates in the shootout, despite Boston’s winless record in the tiebreaking skills contest through the All-Star break).
Chara a legend in Brady’s shadow
Whenever Chara is done defending, the Bruins’ team concept will be forever improved. He will never be as loved as Patriots contemporary Tom Brady, but his stamp on his franchise is no less indelible.
“I hear people say a lot of times, they say, ‘Hey, you’re getting way more banged up than Tom does or you play more games or you play way more physically,’ this and that. But I think you can’t take anything away from Tom,” said Chara. “He’s doing other things that are very spectacular. Obviously, it’s not maybe as physically demanding and harsh playing the quarterback position, but it’s super hard seeing those plays and making those throws, and being so accurate and clutch.”
That and 70,000 people screaming while you bark signals.
“It’s just a different sport, different role,” said Chara. “I’m never being the guy that being like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in the shadow of Tom Brady. I should get more recognition.’ I’ve never been that kind of a guy and I never will be. I’m just trying to focus on what I can do and how I can do it.”
Because of their captain’s forward thinking, the Bruins are in a mighty good place going forward.
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.