On Nov. 19, 1997, barely a month before his current Bruins defensive partner was born, Zdeno Chara made his NHL debut. That night, inside Joe Louis Arena, the 20-year-old Chara helped a mediocre New York Islanders team pull off a satisfying regular season upset of the defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings.
The Red Wings — coached by the legendary Scotty Bowman and led by five future Hall of Famers — were a formidable first opponent for Chara, who performed admirably. Of course, the initial reaction from fans and media focused on Chara’s most obvious attribute: He set the record for being the tallest player in NHL history.
Over time, and through his consistency as one of the league’s top defenseman, the conversation around Chara has shifted. Now in his 21st season, another measurement has become a point of conversation around the experienced Slovakian: Age.
Chara is 42, yet continues to play in the most demanding league of one of the most demanding sports in the world. But as impressive as this accomplishment is, the history of hockey offers an incredible truth: Chara is far from the first NHL quadragenarian.
In fact, of the five Hall of Fame skaters in the Red Wings’ lineup during Chara’s debut in 1997, all of them also played into their 40s. Viacheslav Fetisov, Igor Larionov, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brendan Shanahan, and Steve Yzerman eventually became members of the NHL’s fraternity of 40-year-olds.
A remarkable 50 members of the Hockey Hall of Fame played into their 40s. This tally will grow in the coming years, given the approaching eligibility of Jaromir Jagr (and certainly whenever Chara finally decides to retire).
Even before Chara, Boston fans have witnessed a strong contingent of players over the age of 40 through the years.
Jagr was himself a member of the last Bruins Stanley Cup team in 2013. Acquired in April of that season as Boston made its stretch run, Jagr made an immediate impact, scoring the game’s only goal in his debut. He set a record that season for longest gap between Stanley Cup Final appearances (21 years), and notched three assists in a losing effort.
In 2011, during Boston’s last Stanley Cup win, 42-year-old Mark Recchi turned back the clock on his Hall of Fame career. Twenty years after he helped Jagr and the Penguins win the Cup in 1991, Recchi tied Brad Marchand — twenty years his junior — with a team-high seven points in the seven-game series victory over the Canucks.
And though he had to leave Boston to win a championship, defenseman Ray Bourque totaled 59 points in the last of his 22 NHL seasons. The effort culminated with Bourque satisfyingly hoisting the Stanley Cup for the Colorado Avalanche after a hard-fought series against the New Jersey Devils.
Not surprisingly, the most prolific 40-year-old Bruin was also the team’s all-time goal leader. Johnny Bucyk, whose tally of 545 career goals in Boston still ranks No. 1, totaled 83 points during the 1975-1976 season. Bucyk’s numbers that season trail only Gordie Howe’s 1968-1969 effort (44 goals, 103 points) for most by a player who was at least 40 years old.
New England is certainly no stranger to appreciating athletes in the fifth decade of their lives. Tom Brady has yet to miss a Super Bowl since turning 40. And David Ortiz’s 38 home runs and .315 batting average as a 40-year-old in 2016 prompted calls for a comeback the next year as the Red Sox struggled to replace him. In this regard, Chara is in good company.
Yet in the context of hockey, Chara is part of a truly special group. Players of his ilk endured years — decades, by definition — of punishment that a game like hockey doles out in seemingly unsustainable quantities. Like his quadragenarian counterparts before him, Chara has showcased a Hall of Fame level of toughness.