Fourteen years to forever

Hockey card of Zdeno Chara

I’m fairly sure I was in my car, on the highway somewhere between Quincy and New Bedford, when I got a call from Mick Colageo and his message was simple, to-the-point and more than a little excited:

“They got Chara.”

If you’re not familiar, Mick is a hockey svengali and criminally underrated. He sees the game clearly, understands its nuances and can place it all in context, be it historical or present-day. If he was calling me and that excited, this was a tremendous moment.

I don’t know if even he could’ve seen what was to come: fourteen seasons as the captain of the Bruins, lifting the Stanley Cup and creating countless Paul Bunyan-esque folk tales along the way. Zdeno Chara has shown would-be goal scorers the door and sent anyone who dared to harass a Boston netminder into the fifth row. He’s blasted in goals from the blue line with terrifying velocity and, when given the chance, shown skill and poise with the puck. He’s logged hours and hours on the ice, extending shifts and keeping the wolves at bay when needed. He’s been the ultimate quiet leader, treating teammates young and old with respect and demonstrating exactly how much work was to be expected — and if anyone was ever able to hang in the gym longer than him, I never heard about it.

Through it all, there were moments where it felt like Chara would tower over the Boston blue line forever. If I had known even half of that was to come when he signed up, I’d have careened off the road.

★ ★ ★

Chara probably first entered my radar in the 2003-04 season, when he took on Hal Gill, the Bruins’ prior giant defenseman, and bloodied him. Gill was 6’7” and a mammoth stay-at-home defenseman, and Chara rag-dolled him before landing punches that bloodied Gill’s left eye. It’s not that Gill was a seasoned fighter, it’s that he was a previously immovable object, and this dude from Ottawa just railed on him.

To say everything changed from his signing in Boston on would be an understatement. That 2006-07 season was an uneven campaign, for sure, but his arrival, along with Marc Savard, helped take the pressure off the young Bruins (especially Patrice Bergeron) while they crafted a new identity for the team. By the following season, they were back in the playoffs and giving the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens hell. And three years after that, they reached the top of the mountain for the first time in 39 seasons.

All the while, Chara remained the fierce leader of the Bruins. Off the ice, his workouts were legendary and ridiculous in their intensity. On the ice, he’d routinely log more time than anyone on either team, pushing those totals to nearly 30 minutes in the playoffs. And if anyone dared to take a cheap shot on a teammate, he was there to play judge and jury.

This could turn into a list of greatest moments, but that’s not really the vibe I wanted here. But if there’s one defining exercise of Chara’s time in black and gold, it took place before Game 5 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Less than 48 hours after an errant puck broke his jaw, he had his jaw wired shut, strapped a cage to his mask and took the ice, determined to play through what had to have been agonizing pain in an effort to win the Cup again. And during the pregame announcements, he stood at the blue line, silent and towering, while the fans showered him with cheers.

★ ★ ★

Ever since Doc Emrick’s eulogy for the Bruins 2020 season, I’ve been half-expecting this day, half-hopeful of a reunion and at least one more run in Boston so that, if nothing else, Chara’s tenure as captain wouldn’t end under the cold watch of an empty Toronto rink. I’ve kept my eyes on my spots for hockey news, occasionally running a search on his name, just looking for resolution. When details of the 56-game season arrived, with restricted travel and no bubbles to pry players away from families, I was hopeful that perhaps we’d see a last-second reunion before training camp began in full.

Alas. Chara’s heading to Washington to shore up their penalty kill. Bergeron will lead as the Bruins prepare for life in this 2021 division, and he’ll undoubtedly have the C stitched on the front of his jersey before long, opening another chapter while the prior one closes.

It happens. Guys come and go, numbers are recycled or retired, no one plays forever. Forgive me, though, for believing, for just a minute there, that Chara could be the exception to all that.

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