The evolution of a captain
A long time ago, in a galaxy that seems so very far away as I write this on Nov. 30, 2013, there was a sizeable group of Boston Bruins fans that felt that the 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara was a player simply undeserving of donning the club’s ‘C.’ They were brooding, and my God did they undervalue the importance of the Slovak that’s steadily morphed into the game’s top defensemen.
Given the City of Boston’s love for Patrice Bergeron, a two-way center and ‘03 second rounder that’s embodied what you look for in a professional hockey player both on and off the ice, Bergeron seemed to be their pick for the club’s real captain. Which, by the way I still don’t understand, and by that I legitimately mean that I don’t know what constitutes a real captain versus a fraudulent one. Especially when they’re watching from home and not in the Bruins’ locker room.
But if there’s one thing that’s become apparent in Chara’s eighth year of calling Boston home, it’s that the ‘C’ wouldn’t fit another player better than it does the 36-year-old blue-liner.
With the Bruins on the heels of a 6-1 drubbing courtesy of the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday night, Chara and the Black-and-Gold took to the ice for a Black Friday matinee against the New York Rangers, and ultimately left as 3-2 victors behind an assist, a fight in defense of a teammate, and an eventual game-winner goal from their captain, Big Z.
No rah-rah speeches. No arm-raising pump-up signals to the 17,565 in attendance.
Just the steady ‘follow my lead’ leadership that’s become the norm from Chara.
“Like we’ve often said, he’s obviously our leader and we feed off of him and when you see that fire like he had you want to step your game up and do the same,” Bergeron, an alternate captain, said of Chara after the game. “There’s obviously no better leader, no better defenseman in my mind.
“I think it’s important to step up and also let everyone know that we all need to do that. You can’t just turn the page, you’ve got to learn from it and realize that we got embarrassed and if we don’t play and work the way that we should work we’re not going to get the result,” Bergeron added when pressed about being a leader and responding to Wednesday’s loss. “We’re not the type of team that can play like that so we’ve got to be going every night and today was an important game to be back at it.”
And while the maturation process of both Bergeron and Chara from an on-ice and off-ice presence has been an unbelievable story of progression under Claude Julien’s system, it’s something that’s simply not noticed enough by the Hub’s rabid fanbase, but never lost on his teammates.
“I don’t know if people forget but he makes everything look so easy I would say. He is just so dominant,” B’s defensemen and frequent pairing partner come playoff time, Dennis Seidenberg, noted after Friday’s victory. “He’s a guy that brings emotion if it’s lacking into the game. That’s what he did tonight. He had a great pass on the first goal, a great fight (against forward Brian Boyle) and the last goal so he kind of, basically won the game for us. And that’s what you want out of a leader and that’s what he’s been doing for I don’t know how many years.”
Chara’s body of work in Boston -- which includes a Stanley Cup, countless shutdowns of the game’s top stars, and numerous Norris Trophy nominations -- has become so damn impressive that it seems as if people are hardly noticing (or appreciating) just what this guy means to the Bruins.
When Chara arrived to Boston in 2006, he was often and inaccurately dubbed as one of the Sens’ deserved castaways, a big lummox whose best known for decimating faces with his unbeatable reach and resume that included four straight years of 100+ penalty minute seasons. In the case of keeping Chara or Wade Redden, the sensible choice for the Sens was (at the time) the latter. Chara was seemingly forever going to be the complementary physical piece to a good-not-great team’s top-four.
Being the captain of an Original Six club lost in the chaos of the post-lockout NHL didn’t seemed to help his cause early on, either. Chara was the scapegoat of a disastrous 2006-07 campaign that saw him log way too many minutes under Dave Lewis’ horrid coaching style. He captained the Bruins to three straight exits in the second round or earlier, including 2010’s historic 3-0 series choke to the Philadelphia Flyers. He even nearly ended the career of Montreal’s Max Pacioretty with an infamous hit into the stanchion of the Bell Centre.
On top of all of that, Chara, a player who whether we wanted to admit it or not, was never going to be judged fairly. In a city known for their legendary defensemen, the Bruins were forever in search of the next Eddie Shore. The next Bobby Orr. The next Ray Bourque. Chara, with his price-tag and captaincy, was supposed to be as good as those guys. An impossible task, really.
But the comparisons and nightmares logged under Chara’s blades didn’t stop him from being Chara.
They pushed him to be even better.
In the spring of 2011, Chara shut Michael Cammalleri, the playoff hero of a year prior, down. He then slammed the door on the Flyers’ Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, undoubtedly speeding their exodus from Philly up. In the third round he kept the Lightning’s three-headed monster of Marty St. Louis, Vinny Lecavalier, and Steven Stamkos at bay. All before shutting down Vancouver’s dynamic one-two punch of Henrik and Daniel Sedin down in a seven-game war with the Canucks.
The end result was a joyous, historical scream that saw the B’s captain raise a 30-pound Stanley Cup high above his head in pure jubilation. Releasing 39 years of Boston’s frustration, and a few of his own, Chara was on top of the hockey world. But going on a three-year Cup drought and reeling from last year’s Cup defeat from the Chicago Blackhawks, Chara’s hunger seems stronger than ever.
“He’s an incredible leader and every day he comes in and shows the guys the direction that we need to go in,” B’s winger Brad Marchand said of the team’s captain, now in his 15th NHL season and with his third organization. “He always comes up big at the big times, you saw with that assist on my goal, and again the game winner and how he sticks up for his teammates. We’re very lucky to have him and he’s definitely very tough for other teams to play against.”
This season, Julien and the B’s have made a noticeable effort to limit the tread on Z’s tires. He’s become a fixture in front of the net on the power-play, a change that’s lead to four power-play goals a quarter way through the season, and he’s rarely logging the 30-minute contests that became ho-hum. But these changes aren’t lessening Chara’s impact for the B’s, the Atlantic’s best team. And it seems that finally, eight years in, we can put that terrible ‘Strip the C’ argument to sleep.
This is Chara's team.
Just ask anybody.