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Zdeno Chara Was Truly One of a Kind

In his prime, few players were as feared as Zdeno Chara, the hulking blueliner with the all-time games played record, a Stanley Cup and many more accolades to his credit. As he enters retirement, Adam Proteau looks back at the special defender.
Zdeno Chara

Any summary about future Hockey-Hall-of-Famer Zdeno Chara has to make note he is the tallest player in NHL history. 

But the fact he’s towered over opponents at 6-foot-9 is not the only reason Chara has been one of hockey’s very best defensemen. Indeed, it’s a measure of his competitive nature that the 45-year-old largely thrived through a whopping 24 seasons in hockey’s best league.

There are some tall hockey players who stay gentle and don’t engage physically with the other team. Then there are guys like Chara. Like fellow all-time great Chris Pronger, Chara developed a mean streak – perhaps, as a defense mechanism to counter the hate he had to absorb night-in-and-night-out. And, no matter what you think of Chara’s game, you can’t deny him the longevity he enjoyed: In February, Chara played in his 1,652nd NHL regular-season game, making him the all-time leader in games-played by a defenseman, a mark (that now stands at Chara’s career total of 1,680 games) previously held by HHOF member Chris Chelios. Chelios was a more physical player in a more physical era – the longtime Red Wing D-man accumulated 2,891 career penalty minutes, while Chara retires with 2,085 PIMs, ranking him 46th in NHL history in that regard, and 14th among defensemen.

Ultimately, Chara’s value came out most often at playoff time. He elevated his performance when games mattered most, and for that reason, he played in three Stanley Cup Final series, winning one of them as a leader on the Boston Bruins. The Slovakia native also became just the second European player to win the Norris Trophy as the game’s best defenseman, and he was a three-time First Team All-Star and a four-time Second Team All-Star.

All his accolades were earned, as was the legacy he carved out in the four NHL markets in which he played, particularly in Boston. Bruins fans adored him for his savvy positional play, as well as the fact he’d never back down from a physical challenge. And Chara loved them right back, spending 14 seasons in Beantown before moving on as an unrestricted free agent in 2020. On Monday, he chose to sign a one-day contract to retire as a Bruin, and that’s really all you need to know about his impact and legacy in Boston. He eats free in that city, for all his days in retirement.

But let’s wrap up this look at Chara by noting what a true elite athlete he was. In his final season, spent as a member of the New York Islanders team that drafted him 56th overall in 1996, Chara averaged 18:44 of ice time. As a 45-year-old. That’s simply a credit to him as a competitor, and to his drive. Like Pronger, Chara was one-of-a-kind, and the game just got a bit easier to play now that he’s in retirement.

The Islanders were Chara’s final team and disappointed as a unit in his final season, but his legacy hasn’t been tarnished in the least. His final two teams, the Washington Capitals and Isles, both had considerable expectations on them, and that was a key reason why Chara chose to play there. In his penultimate season in Boston, Chara was a central component of the Bruins’ Cup final appearance, and nearly won his second Cup before Boston fell to St. Louis in seven games. Even as a 42-year-old, in an increasingly young man’s NHL, Chara was a difference-maker in that run. However, after he won his Cup in 2011, he never had anything to prove to anyone.

Yes, Zdeno Chara was a tall dude. But there have been many tall dudes in the NHL over its history. There’s been no one quite like Chara.

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