On Big Z

Even in the most congenial divorce, the division of assets can hurt. When the Czechoslovakian men’s hockey team split after the country’s Velvet divorce in 1993, it was the Czech who ended up with most of the family fortune. With stars like Jaromir Jagr (second only to Gretzky in NHL career scoring) and Dominik Hasek (arguably the best goalie ever), the Czech would go on to win the gold at the 1998 Olympics, something that even the unified Czechoslovakian team had never been able to accomplish. 

Slovakia, however, still managed to keep the house: Zdeno Chara. 

Chara was already 16 years old when the country split. He was just about to begin his hockey career playing for his hometown team in Trenčín, a small city five miles from the newly established Czech border. Unlike his father, Zdenek Chara, who had been an Olympic champion in Graeco-Roman wrestling, Zdeno Chara never got to represent Czechoslovakia in international competition. He did, however, inherit his father’s Olympian physique: At 6”9 (7 ft. on skates), weighing 250 pounds, Chara has long been the largest player in the NHL, dominating defensive zones for 21 seasons since 1998. Though he has only won one James Norris award for Best Defenseman—Nik Lindstrom often stood in his way, winning seven, leaving Chara with five runner-ups—he remains the perpetual winner of the Chuck Norris award for deadliest man with a blade.  

As of today, Chara is the only European player, other than that same Nik Lindstrom, to captain a Stanley Cup-winning team, having led the Boston Bruins to end a nearly four-decades-long Cup drought in 2011. Chara has been the Bruins captain for 14 years, during which time they have made it to the playoffs 11 times, and to the Cup finals three times. He would easily be the franchise’s greatest defenseman, except that, this being the Bruins, Chara will always rank far behind Ray Bourque and Bobby Orr. Nor is Chara even the greatest 43-year-old athlete in recent Boston memory — that honor goes to Tom Brady of course, six months Chara’s junior. Like Brady, Chara is finally leaving New England this season, but not yet retiring. He signed with the Washington Capitals last week, where he will join Alexander Ovechkin as both seek to drink from a second Cup. 

Much attention has gone to Chara’s flashier records, such as the speed of his slap shot (108.8 miles per hour, the NHL’s fastest), his size (the league average is 6”1, 199 lbs), his career plus-minus (the highest plus of any current player), or the fact that he played one of the longest ever shifts (4 min and 18 seconds) when he was already 40 years old. It is easier though to overlook the most impressive record Chara is building, because the NHL has not historically kept track of ice time played over the course of a career. The league keeps track of average ice time per game, a stat Chara has led the league in during past years, and even led the Bruins in last year at 42 years old. But look a bit deeper and you can see Chara is racking up an almost Lebron-esque resume for total minutes played, across regular seasons and playoffs. 

With 21 full seasons thus far, 15 playoff runs, 3 finals runs, and almost no time lost to injuries, Chara is the leader in both regular season and playoff minutes played, and shows little sign of slowing down just yet. He has racked up far more ice time than the player with the second most career minutes, iron man Patrick Marleau (who, at age 41, takes ice baths to reenergize himself during every intermission between second and third periods). By the end of this season Chara will become the fourth oldest skater ever to play in the NHL, passing hockey legends Teemu Selanne, Tim Horton, and Doug Harvey. That will leave Chara chasing only Jagr (who retired last year at 46 years old, and still plays pro hockey back in the Czech league), Chris Chelios (48 years old, retired in 2010), and the great Gordie Howe (52 years old!). Howe actually pulled off what Lebron hopes to do one day, ending his career playing alongside his son

This brings us to Chara’s other Lebron-ish attribute: making his teammates, and specifically his goaltenders, look amazing. Admittedly some of this may be coincidence; trying to measure an individual player’s impact in a sport like hockey can be a somewhat fuzzy pursuit.  But it is probably not a complete coincidence that Chara’s teammates in Boston have won the Vezina award for Best Goalie three times — Tim Thomas twice and Tukka Rask (who was also Vezina runner-up this past season) once. Both goalies have had exceptional seasons with the Bruins: Thomas had a season with the 2nd best save percentage in modern NHL history, and Rask a season with the 8th best. (Dominik Hasek, who had the 3rd best save percentage season, also played with Chara for a year in Ottawa, and played well, but he had already won 6 Vezinas and 2 MVPs by that point in his career, without Chara). Chara’s long reach and ability to remove opponents from the front of the net have made him particularly useful at limiting goals during penalty kills, at which the Bruins have usually excelled.  

I say all of this with a respect that is truly grudging. Chara’s shadow has loomed over my hometown team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, for two decades now. The Leafs have faced Chara in 6 out of their past 7 playoff berths, going back all the way to 2001 when Chara was still playing for Toronto’s provincial rival the Ottawa Senators. On the Bruins, the Leafs have faced Chara in three Game 7s — and are 0-3 against him. That record includes this Bruins comeback in 2013, one of the more devastating losses in Leaf history. Watch as Chara helps Boston score consecutive goals with the Bruins’ own net empty with about a minute left in the game, first with his slap shot and then by using his giant body to screen the Leafs goalie. 

It is easy, of course, to overlook hockey stars in America, especially in Boston where all three of the other big sports teams have been so great at the same time. Most sports fans probably have not caught on to what Chara has done in his career, or, even more impressively, what Connor McDavid, barely more than half Chara’s age, is now doing (McDavid has been sparking hockey’s own GOAT debate — if you haven’t watched any Oilers hockey since Gretzky, try watching a period this year and you will immediately see why). It’s good, then, that Chara is going to a team where another physically imposing hockey great, Alex Ovechkin, has helped put hockey on the map. Going into this season, which starts next week, both Washington and Boston are near the top of the betting odds to win the Cup. 

Chara may also have one more run left in him on the international stage, with the 2022 Beijing Olympics now a year away. Thus far Chara has won two silvers with Slovakia at the World Championships (a tournament held annually), but has not yet won a medal at the Olympics, where the best that the Slovaks have finished is fourth place. 

This, of course, begs the question that often follows divorce: what if they had just stayed together? A post-Cold War Czechoslovakian team would have paired Chara — and other Slovak stars, such as Marian Hossa — with the Czech greats like Jagr and Hasek. This is one of the big “what if’s” of Eastern European sports, along with the much uglier breakup that put an end to Yugoslavia’s basketball teams. (Somewhere, in a more peaceful alternate reality, Doncic and Jokic are building an Olympic juggernaut together…). With no Czechoslovakia in play, the road to gold has been much easier for the likes of Canada (which, unlike Czechoslovakia, is actually a country divided by language), or for Olympic Athletes From Russia, than would otherwise have been the case. 

All this is not just a eulogizer’s praise – Chara’s career’s not done yet.  Boston, it seems, wanted Chara to transition into becoming a penalty-kill specialist, but Chara still wants a bigger role than that, and Washington is prepared to give him one.  And if he can help his new team to one more Cup run, Chara will leave behind a hockey legacy that is nearly as unassailable as he is himself. 


Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s