Zdeno Chara left the Boston Bruins when they couldn’t guarantee him a full-time gig at age 43 and joined the Washington Capitals.
Chara has since turned 44 and shown he can still put in the work.
On Saturday, he is expected to become the 13th player in league history to skate in 1,600 regular-season games. Less than a week after 41-year-old Patrick Marleau broke Gordie Howe’s career games played record, Chara will reach his lofty milestone that those who know him credit to a legendary workout regimen that has kept him on the ice this long and evolved throughout the course of his career.
“I was always very disciplined and driven, and I had a lot of passion for training and diet and staying on course,” Chara said Thursday. “The process to get to those milestones, it takes time, it takes years, days away from families, and I kind of always enjoy that whole process, reaching those goals.”
Chara has already accomplished many goals, winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman in 2009 and lifting the Stanley Cup as Boston’s captain in 2011. The 6-foot-9 Slovak also led the Bruins to the final in 2013 and 2019, proving wrong the youth coaches back home who cut him and the teams that passed on him in the 1996 draft before the New York Islanders selected him in the third round.
The Islanders, Chara’s opponent for this latest milestone, traded him after 231 games, and the Ottawa Senators lost him to Boston in free agency in 2006. Chara grew into a titan of the sport with the “C” on his chest and a reputation as a gym rat.
Long-time Bruins coach Claude Julien recalls plenty of nights when Chara would play 25 minutes and still be working out when he was ready to leave the rink. “He’s like a machine,” Julien said.
Skating coach Adam Nicholas said Chara also shows up an hour or more before an on-ice workout just to prepare. One of the first things Chara said to Nicholas when they began working together half a decade ago was: “I’m just an average guy looking for success.”
“Guys were joking around that it’s almost like he’s trying to touch every piece of equipment that’s in the gym every time,” said Patrice Bergeron, who played alongside Chara for 14 seasons with Boston. “He’s just in there and working at all times and doing extra.”
The work has changed. Chara at 20, breaking into the pros with the American Hockey League’s Kentucky Thoroughblades, needed to build strength. Chara at 35 or 40 shifted gears when the rest of the league was getting faster and should’ve been able to skate circles around him.
“As his career moved into the later stages, he was smart enough to adapt his training to what he needed to do to continue to be effective,” Julien said. “He was always big, strong and tough to play against. As he got older, he changed his training into maybe working a little bit more on quick feet and that kind of stuff.”
Chara has told Nicholas of his skating, “I need to put this mansion in a one-bedroom apartment.” Nicholas praised Chara for his love of self-improvement and said, “He changed completely from basically trying to outpower everybody to now he’s as quick or quicker than others.”
To Chara’s teammates, it didn’t matter what he was working on as much as how committed he was to doing it. Ralph Krueger, who coached Team Europe at 2016 World Cup of Hockey, called Chara’s off-ice package an example to follow.
“He’s still got that drive and that competitiveness and he wants to get better, so he’s always working out and working on his game,” Bergeron said. “It’s more the fact that he’s always in there doing something.”
Chara isn’t a top-pairing force like he once was, but he is still averaging 18 minutes a game for a Cup contender. The Bruins let Chara and Torey Krug depart in free agency to clear the way for younger players on defence, but the Capitals got exactly what they were hoping for by signing him.
“He just adds so much,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “He understands game situations. He understands where to put the puck, how to defend in front of our net, how to stop the cycle. He does all the little things that you want [from] a veteran player.”
That’s what Chara wants to be known for at this stage of his career.
“Team success is always first,” he said. “I just try to contribute to the team success and help the team as much as I can.”
With a handful of games left until his 16th trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs, Chara is glad to hold an important position with Washington and has more than earned coach Peter Laviolette’s trust in crucial situations. The league’s oldest player prefers to stay in the present and won’t make any promises about his future, and that’s more than okay for the win-now Capitals, who are counting on him in their attempt to capture a second championship in four years.
“He’s an extremely talented player and he’s allowing himself to continue playing by the condition that he keeps himself in,” Laviolette said. “I don’t want to say you lose the passion or lose the flame or lose the fire, but it takes more to keep that burn going, and he clearly has that burn.”