“Hey, Zee!? Zee? Ah, there he is!”
From behind the walls of the locker room, Zdeno Chara would appear and make his way down the tunnel to a waiting Alex Ovechkin, where the two would chest bump and get ready for the game. The same ritual took place before nearly every game, with Chara fitting in seamlessly as if he’s been there for years while his teammates always looked elated to see the 6-foot-9 defenseman make a grand entrance.
That ritual was more than a warm-up, more than a routine — it was fitting of the value and positive culture he was helping to establish.
“I think he brought so much greatness to our organization,” defenseman John Carlson said. “I’ve certainly cherished the time that we had that we had with him and learned a lot about him, what he was about, and I’m glad that he was here. I think those memories of how he attacked the game, how he thought about the game and the person he was, I think everybody learned from him in all facets.”
As Chara sits before a webcam at Medstar Capitals Iceplex to bid adieu on exit day, he sports a smile as he takes a moment to reflect on his first — and perhaps last — season with the Capitals.
Although the end to his story in D.C. was “disappointing,” with the Caps falling in five games for another early first-round exit at the hands of his former Boston Bruins, the 44-year-old was nothing but grateful, not letting the conclusion of a wild regular season overshadow its value.
“It was a new experience for me. I really enjoyed it. Like I said, since day one, everybody welcomed me with open arms and all credit goes to the coaching staff, trainers, all my teammates,” Chara said. “They did an amazing job welcoming me and making that transition as easy as possible, and I really enjoyed it. It was a great time spent here, and a lot of fun. We played some great hockey.”
Just a day before New Year’s Eve, the Boston captain decided to move on from the place he called home for the last 11 years, declining a smaller role with the team in exchange for a new opportunity with Washington. The signing shook the hockey world as he inked a one-year deal for $750,000, excited to hit the ground running and to get a chance to bring something new to the table.
“He’s here to help us, not just for ‘OK, we signed Chara. He’s gonna come here, he’s gonna work hard, he’s gonna bring some energy, he’s gonna bring some new experience to our team and I think it’s gonna help us,” Ovechkin had said at the start of training camp.
And help he did. Not only did the veteran slot in and find chemistry on the defense corps, unafraid to throw his weight around, block shots and sacrifices the body night after night, he also brought a new perspective and form of leadership to the room. He was able to speak up, offer advice, stick up for his teammates and most importantly — lead by example.
“[I learned] so much. He’s a guy that I’ve obviously been able to look up to for the last however million years he’s been playing in the NHL. A guy who started in the WHL where I was able to play. A guy who just plays the game so hard,” Brendan Dillon said of his fellow defenseman. “He affects the game in all facets, from the off-ice to the on-ice. And to have him around here as a Capital for the past year for me personally, the leadership, the work ethic, how to treat your teammates, how to treat your trainers, it’s kind of infectious. And you wonder why he helped build that culture in Boston, it just really starts with how you are as a person.”
Zdeno Chara score his first goal with the Capitals and his teammates are fired up pic.twitter.com/TsFBGYp6N1— Brady Trettenero (@BradyTrett) January 29, 2021
Through 55 games this season, Chara posted two goals and 10 points, as well as a +/- of 5, 67 blocks (second on the team) and 88 hits (second among Caps d-men), while averaging 18:19 minutes per game.
“I felt great. It was obviously a condensed season with a lot of games, travel, itineraries and practices, but I thought that the coaching staff, all the trainers manage it really well,” Chara explained. “They spread the workloads and rest days between our game and practices the way that we could rest and be fresh. I had a lot of fun. I obviously love to stay in shape and work out and that’s what I did, what we did, and it was a lot of fun.”
For head coach Peter Laviolette, Chara was an excellent resource considering all of the different aspects he was able to bring to the table.
“He’s played the game for a long time. He’s had incredible success doing things a certain way. His character is character, his leadership is his leadership,” Laviolette said. “The way he plays the game, what you see on the ice: All of these things... it’s just kind of his DNA and his makeup of who he is... he’s intense, he’s polite, he’s strong, he’s physical, he’s hungry. There’s a lot of attributes that he brings to the team.”
Over the course of the season, Chara was also to form a special bond with his new captain and longtime opponent in Ovechkin. He was relieved to be the teammate rooting for those one-timers from the office instead of facing them, and more importantly, the two were able to form a close bond that changed both of them for the better.
“Since day one, I got to know Alex in different ways than playing against him on the ice,” Chara said. “He’s a great human being, an amazing player, a great leader. So to be on the same team was a great experience I will cherish the rest of my life. I’m very grateful for that.”
With the season officially over, Chara is looking forward to returning to Boston and spending time with his wife and children, who he had to leave behind to go and join his new team for the campaign.
“Definitely that was one of those things that I found the most challenging, being away from my family. But at the same time, the accommodation and the environment I was in made it much easier and better than I expected,” Chara admitted. “So looking forward to seeing my family, my kids again every day, but definitely that will be a factor going into the decision I'll be making in the future.”
That decision now looms as “Big Zee” looks toward his next career move, whether that be signing another deal and playing another season or hanging up the skates.
“Obviously I think that it’s not always decision that I can make myself. Sometimes there are things in life that you have to realize,” Chara said of the possibility of retiring, adding, “After those conversations [about my future], I’m going to probably let those emotions settle in and see where I'm at.”
Regardless of his choice, Chara lived up to his expectations for Washington. He came in with a promise of protecting the team, and he did that and more. Now, as he returns home to ponder an uncertain future, there’s one thing that remains positive: he made his mark in D.C., in Boston and on the NHL, where “33” will be more than just a number.