From curiosity to cornerstone, Zdeno Chara wraps up legendary career

Watch as Boston Bruins fans cheer for defenceman Zdeno Chara during the 2019 Stanley Cup Final.

The video at the top shows the view from Sportsnet’s set for Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. An enormous ovation for Zdeno Chara, three nights after taking a puck in the face that knocked him out of Game 4 — sort of.

Unable to play in the third period, he became the world’s highest-paid doorman. Chara sat on the bench, encouraging teammates despite being unable to play. There were times it looked like the Bruins would need to chain him to his seat to prevent him from going out there. 

After St. Louis won the Stanley Cup, Chara admitted he had multiple jaw fractures. “I think I’m able to tolerate pain,” he said.

Yeah, that’s an understatement.

When I started at Hockey Night in Canada, I did a lot of Senators’ games. That was a great team, highlighted by its run to the 2007 final. They were phenomenal to deal with, and Chara was a big part of that. There were some great memories:

• Wade Redden saying he was embarrassed to take off his shirt around Chara “and I’m not the only one.”

• Bryan Murray saying Daniel Alfredsson loved to challenge himself against Chara. One day after practice, Murray said the two were going on a bike ride together. (Chara’s love of cycling is well-known.) The next day, following a morning skate, Murray was asked how it went. He said Chara thought Alfredsson was wimpy for “quitting after five hours.” (Alfredsson rolled his eyes at this, denying it is true. For pure comedy, I choose to believe it is.)

• At the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, Slovakia had a poor tournament. During one of the intermissions in their last game, voices were raised behind the closed door of their dressing room. A team official looked at me. He said, “Chara.” Then someone else. The official said, “(Pavol) Demitra.” He shook his head. “They are destroying their teammates. They can’t stand to lose like this.”

• Upon being named Boston’s captain, hearing Chara called four-time Stanley Cup champion coach Al Arbour out of the blue to ask him about good leadership. The two lived not far from each other in Florida. Arbour said he’d never forget Chara’s booming voice when he first heard it over the phone. 

The Stanley Cup doesn’t seem small in many hands, but it sure looked that way as Chara unleashed that guttural yell upon lifting it in 2011.

Chara had two great gifts: size and will. The NHL has its obvious prejudices for big men. Just by being the dimensions he is, the monstrous defenceman was guaranteed some type of NHL career. But the true measure of his greatness is he never accepted that as being anywhere close to enough.

When he arrived at WHL Prince George in 1996, he was the definition of a project. The stories were legendary about how raw he was. But under Cougars coach Stan Butler — who Chara name-checked on Tuesday — the defenceman's legendary work habits began the process of developing him from curiosity to cornerstone. He is the greatest free-agent signing in NHL history. 

Chara never demanded anything of others that he wouldn’t demand of himself. He made sure new or young teammates felt involved and included. 

He didn’t just have “a career.” Teammates are going to be telling Chara stories for decades. That number is going to the rafters in Boston. He’s going to the Hall of Fame. 

Enormous person, enormous impact.

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