BOSTON — Zdeno Chara and Rod Brind’Amour overlapped in the NHL as players for 12 seasons, and Brind’Amour spent most of that time resenting the 6-foot-9 defenseman.
“Not too many fond memories, that’s for sure,” Brind’Amour said earlier this month. “A lot like Scott Stevens for me. He was the kind of player you knew when you were in the corner that you were either gonna get crushed or something was gonna happen.”
Brind’Amour retired in 2010 and now coaches the Carolina Hurricanes. Chara is still the captain of the Boston Bruins, imposing his size and will on opponents — while giving zero indications of retirement, even as the NHL morphs quickly around him as a younger, faster man’s game.
And so when Chara’s Bruins beat Brind’Amour’s Hurricanes in this year’s Eastern Conference finals, the coach couldn’t help but stop when he met his former foe in the handshake line.
“Much respect for you,” Brind’Amour said. “You can’t keep doing this. Good for you. Good luck to you.”
Like Brind’Amour, most of the NHL is in awe of what the six-time Norris Trophy finalist has been able to achieve over 21 seasons, 1,485 regular-season games and counting. After all, at 42, Chara is now closer in age to Brind’Amour (48) than he is to all but one of his current teammates. To get a sense of what others in the league think of Chara, just consider these comments from his opponents in the Stanley Cup Final.
“To play at that age, at that size?” Blues center Brayden Schenn said. “It’s pretty incredible to watch him to see what he’s done so far. I think all guys in the league respect him.”
“Honestly, it’s just fun to watch him play,” St. Louis defenseman Colton Parayko added. “He’s still got it. He’s big and still moves well, he’s actually unbelievable.”
“He’s not as fast as he was when he was younger,” fourth-liner Oskar Sundqvist said. “So you need to get the puck behind him, try to get him to turn around as much as possible. Of course, that’s still not very easy.”
And Blues veteran winger Chris Thorburn: “I’ve actually fought him twice. The second one I asked him [to fight]. The first one he came after me. I think our tough guy fought [Milan Lucic], and then I bumped [Chara], and he grabbed me and he hit me pretty hard with one. He could have hit me again, but another part of him is such a respectful player, he didn’t. If you’re willing to fight him — well first, good luck. But he plays by the code and the rules, and that’s why everyone respects him.”
Chara, a native of Slovakia, is the son of an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler. He is a notorious gym nut (he keeps detailed logs of each of his offseason workouts). Chara says he got a sense a few years ago of how the NHL was trending in terms of speed, and made necessary training adjustments. It helps that he studies hockey as hard as anyone.
“He knows every single guy’s tendencies on the other team, and if he doesn’t, he’s asking the assistant coaches, he’s asking the video coaches what they’ve seen from so-and-so from games past on film,” teammate Torey Krug said.
That has led to his impressive longevity. Since making his playoff debut in 2002, Chara has played more than 4,629 playoff minutes. The next-highest player in that span? Nicklas Lidstrom, at 3,721. And within that time frame, Chara’s game has evolved.
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“The way he plays the game was a lot more tilted years ago to those physical one-on-one battles,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “Now it’s a little more pace. Use your stick and angles to play defense more so than in the past. He’s adjusted real well. He’s still going to be Z — heavy in front of the net, a shot suppressor on the PK — but he’s had to change playing against smaller, quicker guys, and he’s done a nice job.”
This season, Chara’s ice time dipped below 22 minutes per game for the first time in 20 years, though he’s still on the top pairing, and in the playoffs he’s second on the team in ice time per game, trailing only partner Charlie McAvoy. Chara has maintained his even keel (it’s difficult to find examples of Chara not speaking in a mild manner) and toughness (consider Game 1, when Chara’s arm bled profusely after being hit by a shot near the end of the third period; about 20 minutes later, he was standing by his locker, calmly telling reporters that he got stitches but was totally fine).
But perhaps just as important to the Bruins is the way Chara leads. The captain — fluent in Slovak, Czech, Polish, Russian, German, Swedish and English — is committed to inclusivity. He infamously hates using the word “rookie,” explaining he doesn’t like to create divisions in the locker room among younger and older players.
“He treats everyone the same way,” teammate Brad Marchand said. “You’d expect sometimes guys with that big of a presence, and how famous he is, he’d be a little arrogant. But that’s not him at all. He’s extremely humble, he’s thankful for everything that he has, and he’s worked extremely hard for it. He’s an incredible leader in that sense. He makes it very easy to learn from, and to feel welcome and part of the group. I think it’s part of why our young guys are very comfortable being the loudest guys in the room. We need that, it’s energy we feed off of.”
Krug explained that dynamic further on the ESPN On Ice podcast this month: “For a young guy to walk into our locker room, I’ll be completely honest with you. If you walk into our room and you try to have a conversation with Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara, David Krejci, go down the list, it’s pretty intimidating. That is, in itself, tough to do. What people probably don’t understand is how welcoming those guys are. Z is a big part of it. He is obviously doing his own thing and trying to prepare the right way and everything like that. But his conversations and his willingness to let guys do their own thing — and obviously get to the rink and enjoy his time at the rink — has been special.”
Chara is so committed to evolving, he even tried something new last season: his own Instagram page. The defenseman has been diligent about posting; like most athletes, there are quite a few selfies and some gym videos, but also thoughtful captions about friendship, the importance of expanding one’s mind, and a few cultural lessons about Slovakia.
And after the Hurricanes series, Chara decided to post about Brind’Amour.
“Rod is a true leader and was a tough warrior to play against,” Chara wrote in the caption. “At last night’s handshake line, his words meant a lot to me. Balancing respect and intensity are what the playoffs are all about.”