EL SEGUNDO, CA Zdeno Chara has bushels of postcard memories from every NHL game leading up to what will be his 1,000th game in the league Saturday night against the Los Angeles Kings at the Staples Center.
The 35-year-old defenseman credits good fortune, good health, good conditioning and good hockey with getting him to a plateau always met with respect and reverence by those around the NHL. Chara also remembers exactly where he came from when he was still just a gangly 6-foot-9 Slovakian defenseman project with the New York Islanders organization.
This was back when Chara was a 20-year-old baby giraffe and when a Norris Trophy, a Stanley Cup or even an All-Star berth seemed to be so far out of his considerable reach.
Instead he was just a Slovakian prospect pinching himself at the good fortune of being in the NHL while getting ushered into the league under the head coaching tandem of Rick Bowness and Mike Milbury on Long Island.
That really does seem like a long time ago, doesnt it?
I remember everything about that first shift. It was a defensive zone face-off on the left side of the ice. Scott Lachance on the left side and I was on the right. It was one of those things thats hard to forget. It was a dream come true because it was the first game in a big, big league, said Chara. Growing up memories go through your head and its quite a thing that almost 15 years later I remember it like it was yesterday.
I bet most of us players remember quite a bit. You see a person or something happens, and then all of a sudden a memory clicks in for one of those 1,000 games. Its funny that way: you always remember the stuff that happened on the ice even if you forget somebodys name or their number from a previous day.
Amazingly enough Bruins assistant coach Doug Houda was a 31-year-old veteran defenseman on that New York Islanders team.
So it was many moons ago in terms of the younger, faster and stronger NHL, and it speaks to Charas longevity that many of his teammates dont see his Herculean skills dissipating anytime soon.
As a player you sit back and take stock every time you cross another 100 games in the league, but obviously 1,000 is a pretty big one. Ive been around a few of them now and you see guys take a step back and look at their whole career. Theyre reminded again of that first game and how excited they were, said Andrew Ference, who is 12 years into the league and still at 702 games played. Once youve played a lot of games you start to get an appreciation for the privilege of playing in the league. Hitting 1,000 games is almost the pinnacle of that.
Hes got a lot of pride, so that alone will keep him going for quite a few years. Hes not lacking in the training or the health department, which catches up to some guys. I dont know whats going to stop him.
Thats a thought thats traveled through the minds of many NHL foes when it comes to the 6-foot-9 defenseman.
Clearly Chara moved on to bigger and better things from Long Island thanks to an ill-conceived Milbury trade, and eventually found his home in Boston. All the while hes been continuously building on what should be a Hall of Fame career before all is said and done.
Chara has become the best shutdown defenseman during his era of the NHL and one of its toughest and most feared competitors. Thats not even counting the fact Chara has also developed into a reliable 50 point performer with a 108-mph slapper that strikes fear in the heart of everyone.
One would expect Chara will be one of those players performing at a very high level going into his fourth decade roaming the Earth, and will become an elder statesman in the NHL provided he can remain healthy. Hes already begun to take that role and was front stage and center during All-Star weekend in Ottawa as one of the NHLs faces.
Good health should smile on a fitness and nutritional freak like Chara, who allowed his body temple to be invaded by only a single beer when his team won the Stanley Cup last spring.
Its the respect and love for the game of hockey that shine through most for Chara, however, as hes become the best-of-the-best at the NHL level on one of the leagues marquee teams. The 1,000 games played is simply icing on the cake.
I knew Id be capable of doing it, but it takes years and moments of luck. It takes good health, said Chara. Its a great milestone. We always talk about how tough it is to reach that. You dont even realize it until youve played seven, eight or ten years and youre not even halfway there because of injuries or whatever.
Im looking forward to however many games I play. I want to play as long as I can be effective. I love keeping myself in shape and working hard. I love to compete. I just love the game: the mental preparation and the physical toughness part of it. You have to love it to do it. Its hard, but its a privilege to play in the NHL. Its one of those things you dream of. You cant be sitting there thinking the NHL is lucky to have me. Its the other way around. Im so lucky to be a part of the NHL.
Brian Rolston is the only other player currently on the Bruins thats eclipsed the 1,000 games played milestone, and Shawn Thornton said hes looking forward to enjoying the moment with his Captain. Despite all of the honors and unique experiences this particular set of Bruins have experienced over the last five seasons, there havent been many Bruins players in recent memory to eclipse 1,000 career NHL game in a Black and Gold sweater.
That last name to do it hasnt been in a Black and Gold sweater since Claude Juliens first season coaching the team.
Its a big milestone. Its a lot of games. We havent seen it a whole of times since Ive been here. Glenn Murray was the last one, I think. Obviously Mark Recchi and Brian Rolston have both gotten to 1,000 games too, said Shawn Thornton. Youve got to play for a long time and youve got to stay for healthy. His size, strength and conditioning have all helped him. Its a testament to all of that stuff.
Claude Julien joked Chara might be able to play 1,000 more games given the kind of pristine shape he keeps himself in, but he still has plenty of years to play on an extension signed last year with the Bruins.
Theres no reason to think he might not be able to add another 500 games to that nice, even number of 1,000 that will be lauded all across the NHL on Saturday, and hell be just as hard to play against in game No. 1,500 as he will be against the Kings this weekend.