BOSTON Zdeno Chara may finally be rounding into the leader everyone always wanted him to be.
Thats no knock on the 6-foot-9 defenseman and Bruins captain in his fifth year with the team, and his 13th year in the NHL, of course.
Its more a nod to the demands that come along with wearing the C on the Black and Gold sweater of the Spoked B tribe, and the downright crazy expectations of a frothy fan base that hasnt tasted from the Stanley Cup in 39 anguish-filled years.
Chara couldnt just be a sterling leader by example or the hardest worker on the team as hes always been during his All-Star, Norris Trophy caliber career with the Islanders, Senators and Bruins.
Chara had to show fire and emotion in times of need for his team, and learn how to connect with every single member of his hockey club on a greater level than simply showing them how many pull-ups he could do in 60 seconds.
There was an emotional component to the job that Chara always seemed to be searching for, and it was clearly a process. It would seem that in his most challenging NHL season the Bs defenseman finally broke down those walls, and everyone within the organization has taken notice of his evolution as hes battled true adversity all along the way.
Weve been together for both our tenures here. We went to one conference final with Ottawa and lost, so that was a bit of painful memory. We just kind of connected briefly after Game 7 and I could see a little bit of a twinkle in his eye, said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. It was kind of a special moment for me to share with him. I cant say enough about him as a player and his defensive impact on the game.
I think in the Tampa series you saw him try and do a little more offensively on his own and at clutch times. That was -- for me -- him stepping up. His leadership abilities have grown exponentially. I cant say enough about Zee and the impact that he has in the locker room -- and on the ice.
The crowning moment came following the Game 7 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning when Chara finally experienced the victorious glory hes waited for his entire career.
Chara was invited to center ice to accept the Prince of Wales Trophy from NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly that signified Bostons Eastern Conference Championship, and his first trip to the Stanley Cup Final.
This was after taking down the Montreal Canadiens in seven games after that team, that city and that whole region forced Chara through the ringer for his clean hit on Max Pacioretty. This was after a police investigation for a hockey hit deemed a hockey play by the league that polices these sorts of things.
This was after Chara missed Game 2 with a case of severe dehydration that forced his hospitalization and caused him to drop a sickening 10 pounds over a 24-hour period leading up to the game.
This was after Chara blew away the questions about his 0-5 career record in Game 7 leading into this years playoffs with big performances in Game 7 victories over the Habs and Lightning.
It would have been natural for Chara to be thinking about himself when he was called to accept the Prince of Whales Trophy, pondering deeply what the victory meant to his standing both in the league and in the long history of the Bruins organization.
But thats not what happened at all, and it spoke volumes about Charas priorities.
Chara conjured up images of the 2001 New England Patriots when he summoned all of his teammates to crowd around the conference trophy and get a group picture with a mildly surprised Daly.
Because its not normally done that way in the tradition-beholden NHL.
Chara departed from the norm to include an entire team thats grown incredibly tight over the last four years amid concussions, cheap shots, playoff collapses and a European trip that bonded the squad tightly together.
It was a group gesture that made a lot of people happy up and down the organizational ladder, and revealed just how closely the Bruins have developed into a unit that rises and falls on a united front.
It says a lot about the team. Zees never been there so he goes up there and you always talk about whether you touch the trophy or not. Youre probably thinking about a bunch of different things like Wow, we made it and all this stuff, said Chiarelli. You can tell what was first on his mind Lets get the team up there.
You look at the photo afterwards and its a pretty cool photo. Zee is growing exponentially as a leader. Im certain that he would say also that his support group is very strong. It has been getting stronger as a group. Hes a very effective and very good leader for this team.
Chara was anointed leader because of his role as a captain, but hes been supported by a stalwart leadership group within the Bs dressing room.
Mark Recchi has been a big factor in the Chara evolution as a leader because its given the big defenseman a veteran thats seen everything during his 21 years in the NHL. Chara listened to the 43-year-old from the first day he arrived in Boston via a trade with the Lightning three years ago.
Patrice Bergeron is the emerging force thats becoming a voice just as strong as Chara and Recchi when it comes to leadership, intensity and the commitment to bringing a Cup back to Boston. It was Bergeron and Chara after all that believed so much in the Bruins Way of doing things that they both signed on for lengthy contract extensions before the season commenced in Prague.
That trio is supported fully by Shawn Thornton, Andrew Ference, Tim Thomas and now by Chris Kelly, Shane Hnidy and a burgeoning group of young leaders within the dressing room taking their paces from the vets. Its created the perfect environment of winning inside the Bs dressing room, and Chara has seen it built from the ground up when he arrived in Chiarellis first season.
Its pretty special here, said Chara. Winning Game 7s thats when you know that everybodys buying into it. Everybodys willing to sacrifice and do whatever it takes for the win.
We are just showing our desire. We want it bad and for every player in this room and every fan outside of this arena. We are very thankful to the fans and all the people for our support.
Chara has shown it while playing against the Canadiens at much less than 100 percent when he did return from his dehydration episode, and managing to lead the NHL playoff field with a plus-11 while lining up against the best offensive players in the world. Its left little doubt how much of a game-changer Chara is on the ice, and what his standing is within an organization thats boasted some pretty outstanding defensemen in its black and golden history.
It does validate that were filling the holes with the right people and bringing the right organization together. It validates the quality of the management and the leadershipnot just at the top but throughout the organization, said Bs owner Jeremy Jacobs. From the player on the ice, you take Zdeno Chara. His leadership is indispensable. I think the organization from the top to bottom has evolved into a singular objective.
Its taken time and some stunning defeats over the years for that message to be honed into something ready for a Cup-worthy ascension, but Chara has finally reached it this season as a leader still operating at an elite level.
Chiarelli always envisioned what Chara would become before his career was finished in Boston, and big Zee is now that guy forged through the fire of experience and time.