Chara's legacy is transforming Bruins back into Stanley Cup-caliber franchise originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
Not too long ago the Boston Bruins sat near the bottom of the NHL with almost no hope in sight.
After a lockout wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, the Bruins finished the 2005-06 campaign with the fifth-worst record in the league and dealt their best player, Joe Thornton, to the San Jose Sharks before the trade deadline for an underwhelming return of players.
The Bruins had pretty much hit rock bottom. They were desperate for a culture change.
Enter Zdeno Chara.
The Bruins, who had been reluctant to spend big money in free agency for a long time, finally opened the checkbook and signed the star defenseman to a five-year, $37.5 million contract in July of 2006. It was the greatest free agent signing in league history and a move that ignited the team's ascent from bottom feeder to a perennial contender that would compete for the Stanley Cup.
Sure, other moves contributed to that rise as well. The Bruins also signed star center Marc Savard on the first day of free agency in 2006. Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci developed into top-tier centers. Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand were all drafted in 2006. Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask provided a backbone as Vezina Trophy-winning goalies.
But the most profound change was the addition of Chara, who instilled a level of on-ice performance, leadership and class that ranks among the best players of the last 25 years.
"Without that you cannot win," Chara said Tuesday when asked about the importance of building a strong culture when he came to Boston as a free agent. "You need to have a culture. You need to have players that want to follow. It wasn't just me. It was a team effort. I would never have done it without Patrice (Bergeron). I would never have done it without Brad (Marchand) coming in and following Patrice's lead.
"We had guys willing to step in, coming from different teams and adjust to that culture. We pushed each other. We were practicing as hard as we could against each other, but we were still OK with it. We set goals, and slowly but surely we were climbing and making these steps. But without the culture and somebody planting the seed and basically putting the foot down like this is how it's going to be -- it was hard at the beginning. It wasn't easy, but it was necessary. I felt it was necessary for this organization and for this team to make that change."
It's one thing to sign with a franchise and play great, help it win a championship and leave as a legend. It's quite another to do all of those things and instill a culture of winning, respect and leadership that will last long after you leave. That's what Chara built in Boston.
Nick Goss on Chara's legacy in Boston
In the 11 seasons prior to Chara's arrival in Boston, the Bruins missed the playoffs four times and advanced past the first round only once.
In his 14 seasons with the B's, they won 615 regular season games. Only three teams -- the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks -- won more during that span. The franchise also reached the playoffs 11 times, went to three Stanley Cup Final series and won the team's only championship since 1972.
There were plenty of challenges on the way to ending that title drought. A Game 7 loss to the rival Montreal Canadiens in 2008 was difficult. An overtime loss in Game 7 at home to an inferior Carolina Hurricanes opponent in 2009 was tough, too. The most frustrating setback was blowing a 3-0 lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round in 2010.
But Chara kept the Bruins focused on the ultimate prize, and in 2011 he took his performance to another level and helped lead the franchise back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1990. The Bruins defeated the Vancouver Canucks in a Game 7 on the road. Chara was dominant defensively in the clincher, even stepping into the crease and saving a goal in the second period.
After the final buzzer sounded, he hoisted the Stanley Cup higher than it's ever been lifted.
"We did it together," Chara said Tuesday. "We had such a committed group. We all bought into what we did, prior years in the practices. Every day we made commitments to each other and the team. To finally accomplish it and win the Stanley Cup, it was such a relief and a happy moment for everybody because we did it together. We did it as a group."
On the ice, there was no better shut down defenseman in hockey than Chara during his time with the B's. He was a nightmare to play against with his physicality, willingness to block shots, perfect positioning and long reach. The 6-foot-9 defenseman won the Norris Trophy in 2008-09 and finished top 10 in the voting 10 times, including eight top-five finishes. The Bruins, from 2006-07 through 2019-20, allowed the fewest goals in the league and had the fifth-best penalty kill. Chara played a massive role in both of those successes.
"I’m happy he’s retired. Playing against him was really, really hard," Senators forward Claude Giroux told reporters Tuesday, via the Ottawa Sun. "He had such an impressive career."
Few players garnered more respect throughout the hockey world than Chara. His leadership as Bruins captain for 14 seasons was first class. The Bruins had one of the strongest locker rooms in the league during his tenure, and he set the example with how he treated his teammates and the whole organization.
“We are treating everybody the same way no matter if somebody is 18, or 40, or somebody has 1,000 games or is playing in their first game," Chara told reporters in May of 2019. "We treat everybody with respect in the same way as everybody else in the locker room.
"I’ve said it many times. Since a very young age, I didn’t like the separation in a team between young players and older players, [or] players who have accomplished something or players that are just coming into the league. I don’t like to use the word ‘rookie.’ They are our teammates. I just don’t like to separate. I don’t think that’s the right thing to do. Once you’re a team, you’re a team regardless of the age, or accomplishments. We have to treat each other with respect and the same way."
Chara's accomplishments speak for themselves. His 1,680 games played are the most by any defenseman in league history. He tallied 680 points and defended the best players in the world for 24-25 minutes per game. He even played through immense pain and injury, most notably in the 2019 Stanley Cup Final when he broke his jaw in Game 4 and still played the rest of the series.
It's one thing to sign with a franchise and play great, help it win a championship and leave as a legend. It's quite another to do all of those things and instill a culture of winning, respect and leadership that will last long after you leave.
That's what Chara built in Boston, and one of the many reasons why he will forever be one of this city's most impactful athletes.