Upon departure, I can’t stop thinking about the importance of the arrival.
I don’t mean to be so coldly classifying about something so emotional, but Wednesday’s news that Zdeno Chara — a beast on the ice and an unfailing beauty of a human off it for 14 years in Boston — was signing with the Washington Capitals made me think about how blessed the Bruins were that he chose to come here in the first place.
Chara joined the Bruins as a free agent on July 1, 2006, signing a five-year, $37.5 million contract after spending the previous four years in Ottawa, where he developed into a Norris Trophy-caliber defensemen. (He began his career with four seasons with the Islanders, having been drafted there by Mike Milbury based largely off a grainy VHS tape.)
The Bruins, who also spent big for Marc Savard in that pivotal offseason, immediately named Chara captain. But his first season in the black-and-gold was not a smooth one. Then-coach Dave Lewis was somewhere between hapless and overmatched. Bruins players, including Chara, weren’t put in the best position to succeed.
Chara’s wife, Tatiana, acknowledged during NESN’s tribute program “Chara at 1,000” last winter that there were second thoughts about coming to Boston. “Oh, yes, that first year was difficult,’’ she said.
The fit was much better when Claude Julien, who spent most of his own modest playing career as a rough-and-tumble defenseman in the American Hockey League, took over as coach in Chara’s second year. Julien, the ol’ blue liner, knew how to best deploy a force like Chara, whose size (6 feet 9 inches even before putting on his skates) made him a presence unlike any other in the league.
In Chara’s fifth season, the Bruins raised the Stanley Cup, their first since the days of Orr and Espo. The captain’s guttural “Yaahhhhhhhhh!” as he hoisted the trophy practically into the rafters at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena was the sound of pure joy colliding with catharsis. I’ll never forget it.
Chara could seem stoic, and woe was the opponent who found his noggin on the opposite end of Chara’s impossibly long reach. But if we didn’t immediately warm to him, and he to us, in that first season, it wasn’t terribly long before we realized he was the quintessential Bruin: reliable, fearless, good-hearted, a leader to literally look up to.
Has there ever been anyone tougher in Boston sports history? All right, maybe Rocky Marciano, but that’s it. Chara played the final three games of the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals with his jaw shattered in multiple places, later acknowledging his mouth was held together by “two plates, some wires and screws.”
It’s not that I never heard a louder ovation than the one he received at the Garden during introductions before Game 5; I’ve never heard a louder anything. How did the Hockey Gods ever allow them to lose that series, and that game in particular? That one hurts, and it haunts, because Chara deserved that Cup too.
As intimidating as he could be on the ice, Chara had a remarkable ability to make himself approachable to those that needed to lean on him. He eliminated the hazing of rookies, believing it alienated rather than unified. He opened his heart to kids, and if you need to pause here to Google the picture of Chara dressed as a giant pink bunny at Children’s Hospital, beaming and trying to make an ailing child happy, well, go ahead and pause. I’m going to find it now too.
It wasn’t obvious in that first year, but long ago he secured his place as one of the best free-agent signings in Boston sports history. David Ortiz, who kept swinging until he changed Red Sox history, is inarguably the best, but he was a discard from the Twins. No one knew what the Red Sox were getting in 2003.
If we’re talking established players coming to town on superstar salaries and carrying expectations that might suffocate some players, I’d rank Chara as the second-best free-agent signing in Boston sports lore. Only Manny Ramirez, who provided the Red Sox with 7½ years of entertainment and hitting genius on the eight-year, $160 million deal he signed before the 2001 season, would rate higher.
It’s sad to see Chara depart. Not because it’s the wrong thing to do — he will be 44 in March, and Bruins general manager Don Sweeney does not get paid to make sentimental decisions — but because he’s one more beloved champion from this golden age of Boston sports to head elsewhere in recent months.
Mookie Betts is the one that will torment the longest and is the most unforgivable. Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski too, is making New Englanders experience what other fan bases envied for two decades. On a smaller scale, even the admirable Torey Krug has moved on.
Chara won’t be unfamiliar, with the Bruins playing the Capitals eight times in this modified season. If only there were the opportunity to give him the roaring in-person salute he deserves when he returns to the Garden.
He might have to play until age 45 to receive that. It might not be as loud as it was the night he took the ice with the hardware store in his jaw. But it will be as heartfelt.
Big Z may have departed, but Bruins fans will always be grateful for all of the good times that came, entirely without coincidence, after his arrival.
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