The most vivid memory of Zdeno Chara’s time with the Bruins undoubtedly will be the night of June 15, 2011, in Vancouver. The bearded Bruins captain, then 34, took the handoff from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and shook the glimmering Stanley Cup vigorously over his head, turning the trophy into an oversized salt shaker to sprinkle grains of joy.
In that one cathartic moment, the franchise’s 39-year championship drought finally came to an end. The days of the Big Bad Bruins, of Orr and Espo, of leather skates and wooden sticks and a dusty, fetid Garden, officially were relegated to a distant corner of the memory vault. All of it certified in that joyful moment some 3,200 miles west of Causeway Street by the towering Big Z.
More powerful and lasting, though, is the Chara legacy here of the last decade-plus, his combination of Herculean work ethic, athleticism, and professionalism that delivered a much-needed culture change that the organization prays can linger for many more years to come.
No one, not even the sublime Bobby Orr himself, who arrived in Boston in 1966 as the greatest gift the game had ever seen, brought that kind of change to the Black and Gold franchise.
Now 45, Chara officially called it a career on Tuesday, inked to a one-day contract to retire as a member of the Bruins, for whom he played the biggest chunk of his career. He flashed an all-too-rare smile amid the signing ritual at TD Garden, noting a condition of the deal general manager Don Sweeney tagged at the end of the contract.
“You guys want to know what it says?” offered a chuckling Chara, as he read, “Zdeno must agree to keep himself in good shape and physical condition at all times in his post-retirement.”
Sweeney, as he handed over the paperwork for Chara to sign, humorously added, “Not much of a challenge for you, is it?”
Chara arrived in Boston as a GM’s dream, a driven perfectionist, signed as a free agent in July 2006 amid the front office transition from acting GM Jeff Gorton to new boss Peter Chiarelli. Age 29, with prior tours with the Islanders and Senators, Chara had not yet fully established himself as the game’s premier shutdown defenseman.
At 6 feet 9 inches, 250 pounds, he was still somewhat of a curiosity, a towering, hulking physical specimen yet to truly carve his niche in the game after eight NHL seasons.. He could fight, ferociously if necessary, but given where the NHL was going, that was barely a spare wrench in his oversized tool kit. He was, above all, the most committed, hardest-working, strongest, best-conditioned athlete in franchise history.
“You’ll see,” said his agent, Matt Keator, the day he signed in Boston. “There is no one like him. Z’s a machine.”
Laser-focused and intimidating, Chara was precisely what the Bruins needed, a stabilizing force behind the blue line and, perhaps of greater importance, in the dressing room. As captain, he expected the same commitment from everyone. He only grew better at his playing craft, particularly in the years after Chiarelli initially misfired on the hiring of Dave Lewis to be Mike Sullivan’s successor as coach and ultimately turned to Claude Julien as bench boss for the start of 2007-08.
Chara arrived on July 1, 2006, only seven months after the Bruins lost patience with Joe Thornton as their would-be franchise rainmaker and abruptly wheeled Jumbo to San Jose. Chara inherited the “C” that Thornton left behind and brought a seriousness and focus to the role that had long been lacking. His no-nonsense, professional attitude and near-monastic work ethic slowly, decisively permeated and defined the room.
“What do you tolerate and what do you celebrate in the room?” noted former Bruin Tom Fitzgerald, now the Devils’ GM, defining the meaning of culture for all 32 NHL teams. “I was on that team before [Chara] and it was a [expletive] culture, I’ll tell you that.”
Fitzgerald’s one season in Boston was the tumultuous 2005-06, which saw Thornton wheeled out at the end of November and Mike O’Connell canned as GM in March. It had been six years since Ray Bourque asked out, and it was a franchise still in search of identity, direction, and a cornerstone in the wake of the star defenseman being shipped to Denver.
“Then they go out and sign Zdeno,” said Fitzgerald, chatting with reporters last weekend in Buffalo, his Devils there as part of a rookie tournament that included the Bruins. “That organization flipped on that day they signed him, it literally flipped.”
The Bruins were “brutal” that first season, with Lewis as coach, conceded Fitzgerald, but the turnaround was emphatic starting the next season. All of it centered on Chara, originally an Islanders draft pick, the 22nd defenseman chosen in the 1996 NHL Draft.
“Now that’s such a strong culture [in Boston],” said an admiring Fitzgerald, continuing to laud Chara. “You can bring anyone into it.”
When Chiarelli ditched Lewis and installed Julien, Chara emerged as a beast on the blue line, playing in all manpower situations, and was named the Norris Trophy winner in 2009 after only his third year on Causeway Street. If not for the leaguewide fascination with defensemen who also roll up points, Chara rightly would have been named the Norris winner two or three more times during his early Bruins seasons.
Chara acknowledged a sense of the “surreal” as he said farewell on Tuesday, noting how hard it was to believe he had traveled so far, so long. The contracts he signed over his near quarter-century totaled a little less than $100 million. As a teen in Slovakia, forced to play in ill-fitting, battered, hand-me-down skates, Chara was cut from multiple junior teams. He has kept those skates as a reminder of how far he’s traveled. They date to a time when one junior coach chided him, mocked his lack of agility and skills, and suggested he try basketball.
It was about then, at age 16, that Chara’s father sat him down in the family kitchen, with a different paper and pen on the table. A celebrated Olympic wrestler in Slovakia, Zdenek Chara sketched out a picture of a train, with engine and trailing cars.
In the last car, his father drew a dot. That dot, he said, was Zdeno. If he listened to what his father had to say, if he worked hard enough, remained committed, he would advance. One day he would drive the train.
“If you get off the train, Zdeno, then it leaves — for good,” Chara’s father recounted for me when the Bruins visited Prague in 2010.
A father’s advice to his son sunk in, deeply. The impressionable 16-year-old trained day and night, often in a backyard filled with makeshift gym equipment. He swung a hockey stick, fixed blade-first in a basket of hardened cement. He did pullups on a bar mounted on an apple tree.
“He was a boy then,” said his father, “and I was his idol.”
The young Chara listened, stayed on task, and took control of a train that, in three years, will drop him off at the Hockey Hall of Fame. A plaque in his honor will hang in Toronto. His No. 33 has a spot reserved in the Garden rafters.
Less tangible but of greater importance to the team he captained for 14 seasons, will be the culture he forged for his 1,173 games in a Bruins uniform. He leaves with his name engraved on the Cup, his lasting mark embedded in the franchise.
LOOKING OUT FOR NO. 1
Habs’ Slafkovsky has all the tools
The Canadiens also were in Buffalo last weekend for the freshman mixer, allowing one and all a look at No. 1 overall draft pick Juraj Slafkovsky, the big left winger who grew up in Kosice, Slovakia, near the Polish and Ukrainian borders.
Slafkovsky, only 18, is a strapping 6-4, 238 pounds, all but guaranteeing he’ll be in the opening night lineup (Oct. 12, home vs. the Maple Leafs). The big boy has body, game, and history on his side — Eric Lindros (1991, Nordiques) was the last forward chosen No. 1 who didn’t suit up in the ensuing NHL season. L’enfant Terrible needed an extra year to wriggle out of Les Nords’ clutches and force a trade to the Flyers.
It took Slafkovsky a period-plus before posting his first point a week ago Thursday night, sliding a smart, clever pass to Filip Mesar for a shorty against the Sabres. Game on.
“Really good first impression, right?” said Jeff Gorton, the Habs GM who started his career as an intern in the Bruins media department. “He obviously came to show why we took him. Right away, it jumps out at you — the size, the skill, the speed. He played a good, competitive game. He was on the puck, made a lot of plays, had chances. So, his first look was pretty exciting.”
Gorton was just starting out in Boston when the Bruins selected Joe Thornton No. 1. The would-be franchise savior struggled that first season, posting only 3-4–7 in 55 games. Unlike Slafkovsky, the gangly Thornton had not yet grown into his big frame (eventually filling out at 6-4, 220). He also was transitioning from junior hockey (ages 18-21), while Slafkovsky played for Turku last season in the top Finnish pro league.
“I remember the expectations for Joe, that it was going to be right away,” said Gorton, musing on what parallels might exist between the two. “And he came immediately into an older team. [In Buffalo], this is a rookie team and tournament, something that didn’t exist [in 1997]. So, Joe was right in with the big boys. And [Sergei] Samsonov was right there and shined — I’m not sure if that was good or bad for Joe in the beginning.”
Later, as GM of the Rangers, Gorton drafted top picks Kaapo Kakko (No. 2, 2019) and Alexis Lafreniere (No. 1, 2020), both forwards, neither able to grasp stardom from the start, albeit after only a combined 292 games headed into the 2022-23 season.
If there’s a lesson to be had from all that experience, noted Gorton, it’s to temper expectations. That could be particularly challenging in hockey-crazed Montreal, where fans continue to filter everything through a clouded Cup lens. Les Glorieux last won the Cup almost 30 years ago (1993). It’s a fandom that once would wail if the wait was 30 months between parades.
“The biggest thing I try to preach to everyone around our team is, just take it one day at a time,” said Gorton, a former Bridgewater State goalie. “Let’s not think too much about what [Slafkovsky] is going to do for us. Let’s let him jump into the process and come at his own speed. In New York, with those guys, we’d never had first and second overall picks ― it was kind of unique — and we were able to get these guys, and we wanted it right away.
“This league is so good, so fast, and some players so strong. It’s just a huge leap, and we forget that sometimes. We want these kids to walk into the league and do things that are really hard to do, and very few people have done.”
Mougenel prefers the college route
Ryan Mougenel, the AHL Providence coach who had command of the Bruins rookie bench in Buffalo, is a product of top Canadian junior hockey. The former winger, now 46, split his four OHL seasons between Owen Sound and Kitchener.
Mougenel called it a career at age 27, after six seasons in the minor pros, and eventually launched his coaching career with ECHL Fresno in 2005-06.
With that breadth of experience, and almost 30 years after embarking on the junior hockey path, Mougenel believes US college hockey is the preferred path for development.
“The one thing about juniors, you play so many games that it wears on your body,” he said. “You don’t have the time to be in the gym. It’s more of a business for a young body. For me, guys that come out of college, No. 1 they understand about time management. They’re a little bit older, more mature. And it shows in the game.”
Marc McLaughlin, 23, noted Mougenel, came to rookie camp after four years of developing at Boston College. Matthew Poitras, 18, arrived at the Buffalo tournament after one season at OHL Guelph.
“The maturity in McLaughlin’s game is a little bit different than Matthew,” Mougenel said. “Obviously, there’s a progression there — a little bit older, and a couple of years is a big thing.”
Despite being a product of junior hockey, Mougenel, from the hockey hotbed of Scarborough, Ontario, now considers himself a “big advocate” of college hockey.
“Just because the runway is so much longer, right?” he said. “Like junior, if you’re going to play professional hockey, I want to be the best version of myself at age 21-22, as opposed to 18. Some of our [junior] kids are done before some of our [college] guys are starting. So, if I had a son, that’s the trajectory I’d want him to go. And overall, quality of life is important. For me, at times, junior hockey isn’t about development. They’ll say it is, but it’s not. You have to win at all costs in junior hockey, and you play every other day — you’re not practicing the right things, you don’t have development time. It’s just different.”
Prior to deciding to go the junior hockey route, said Mougenel, he recalled one Christmas at home looking at a stack of letters, all of them college invites/offers. He dismissed them out of hand. He would make a different decision today.
“I would, yeah, 100 percent,” he said. “But it was a different time. We didn’t know.”
Adam McQuaid was part of the Bruins coaching crew for two games during the rookie tourney in Buffalo. Hired two years ago in a player development role, it was “Quaider’s” first time behind the bench. “Different perspective,” he said. “Nice to see the game at ice level, feel the energy, see how the players interact. I enjoyed it. Fun experience. " McQuaid, 35, was forced to call it quits following the 2018-19 season, largely because of a chronic neck injury. The 6-4, thumping defenseman is strikingly leaner than his blue line days, down some 20 pounds from his playing weight of 215. “I had to train hard and eat a lot, just to maintain my weight when I played,” he said. “So, I’m not eating as much, and not lifting weights like before. Those have been the only changes.” … One club executive’s view of new Bruins coach Jim Montgomery: “Brilliant coach, both from a technical X’s-and-O’s standpoint, and as a motivator. He should be a good fit there, if…” The lingering “if,” noted the executive, relates to the work Montgomery must do to remain sober, after seeking help with alcoholism upon being dismissed in Dallas midway through the 2019-20 season … A last word from the road: The air around the Sabres’ downtown hockey facilities, including KeyBank Center, often is saturated with the delightful smell of roasting oats, wafting from the adjacent General Mills factory/kitchen that cranks out Cheerios (marketed as CheeriOats when first hitting shelves in 1941). Old-timers might remember the smell of bread that permeated the air around the Garden from a nearby commercial bakery before the West End became Causeway chic. In Buffalo, where the smell of the baking industry still literally fills the air, they sell T-shirts that read, “My City Smells Like Cheerios.”
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.