The Boston Bruins will honor recently retired Zdeno Chara and he will drop the ceremonial puck prior to their 1 PM matinee with the Minnesota Wild. There will likely be a tribute video and a roaring ovation for the big guy but no video can encapsulate all he did for the team, the local community and the game of hockey. There’s just too many memories and as they should, they will flow through everyone in attendance today and forever.
I remember the first time I met the former Boston Bruins captain. Like so many were and still are, I was instantly intimidated by the 6-foot-9, then probably 230-235-pound rearguard from Slovakia. It was during the 2000-01 NHL preseason. I was working for the New York Islanders public relations staff as a post-grad intern trying to network myself into the hockey media world. My job was to sit at the credential table in the bowels of the old Nassau Coliseum and give credentials to reporters and scouts. It was a perfect opportunity to meet reporters and try to land some gigs. That’s actually how I met the late Garnet ‘Ace’ Bailey and other former Bruins and NHLers working as scouts and in NHL management that would later become friends and sources for me. That entrance was also where the Islanders players would walk in as well.
Prior to the second (I think?) preseason game against the Philadelphia Flyers, I was chatting with one of the security guards and this giant of a player, though much skinnier and lanky then, walked up and asked if he could get a roster and media packet. After perusing the packet, Zdeno Chara looked down – almost a foot down – at me and said what do you know about this [Todd] Fedoruk kid. At the time, Fedorouk was a 21-year-old, 6-foot-2, 232-pound winger trying to make the Flyers roster out of camp. Thankfully for Chara and myself, I was the Cliff Clavin of hockey facts and was able to give him a quick scouting report before he headed down the hall to get ready for the game.
As expected, and like so many during Chara’s Islanders days, Fedorouk challenged Chara to a fight, but as so many challenges went, Chara just rag-dolled him a bit and the linesmen jumped in to save Fedorouk’s life. I saw Chara a week later prior to a game and he thanked me for my scouting report. To a young lad interacting with players I was a fan of and trying to make it in the hockey media biz, that meant the world to me. From that point on, the stoic Slovakian wasn’t exactly chummy with me but he was always friendly and sometimes I was able to make him laugh.
I would move back to Boston after that season, and in October, 2001 I was covering the team I grew up watching and loving, the Boston Bruins for the Boston Metro. I wouldn’t get the chance to interact with Zdeno Chara again until Bruins training camp prior to the 2006-07 season. Chara, who had signed a $37.5-million ($7.5M AAV), five-year contract with the Bruins and become their captain that offseason was front and center with a huge media scrum around him in the tiny Ristuccia Arena dressing room in Wilmington, MA. After the scrum broke up, I hung around and went over to him wondering if he remembered me. He did and chatted for a bit talking about those Islanders days. That willingness to partake in small talk about the game or life never wavered during his 15 seasons as the captain of the Bruins.
Of course, while that was great, what impressed and always will impress me most about ‘Big Zee’ was how he could go from being the toughest and most-feared player on the ice, to a gentle giant off it. Fans saw the various Bruins charity events that Zdeno Chara would take the lead on, but there were so many things he did for others that they didn’t see and he was fine with that. For Chara, it wasn’t about the bright lights or accolades, it was about being grateful for what life had given him and him giving back. Early during his Bruins career, I lost count of how many sick children or adults, and those less fortunate would be sharing a laugh with him in front of his dressing room stall after he logged 20 + minutes in a brutal and physical game.
Zdeno Chara always had time for them and he had time for everyone he crossed paths with. That, not just his on-ice accomplishments, is why he is the second longest-tenured captain in Boston Bruins history. He led and gave back so much off the ice.
Congrats on a great career Zee!