Captain Zdeno Chara, calm eye of the Bruins’ storm, talks leadership

Friday January 1st, 2016

FOXBOUROUGH, Mass. — His colossus stature aside, there is a certain presence commanded by Zdeno Chara upon his entrance into the Boston Bruins locker room. “When he walks in,” says defenseman Torey Krug, “you know he’s there.” This happens not for any particularly outspoken reason. As the second longest-tenured captain in the NHL behind Arizona’s Shane Doan, Chara picks his moments carefully.

“He’s not going to say a whole lot,” forward Matt Beleskey says, “but when he does, you listen up.”

Nine-plus seasons in black and gold have all been spent with a “C” embroidered on his chest, 700 games with the Bruins once he leads them into Gillette Stadium for the 2016 NHL Winter Classic.

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Different teammates single out different aspects of Chara’s captaincy, all of them branches off the same 6' 9" Slovakian tree. He sticks up for fellow Bruins on the ice. He always seems to be in the gym. He has a keen sense for sniffing out internal issues and creating cures. “I think when I first played with Z, he was so focused on becoming such an elite player and he was then,” says Boston forward Chris Kelly, who crossed paths with Chara in Ottawa when Chara was an alternate captain on the Senators. “But to see how he’s embraced the C here, off the ice as well, how he knows when to get the guys together for a team dinner, when maybe things aren’t going great, or they are going well, little things like that, his timing is really good with things like that.”

This was tested from the outset of the 2015-16 season, after what passed for a significant overhaul during his tenure. Following the team’s first playoff absence since 2007, Chara’s first season as a Bruin, finishing two points out of the Eastern Conference’s last wild card spot, general manager Peter Chiarelli was fired and assistant GM Don Sweeney was promoted from within. Milan Lucic (Los Angeles), Dougie Hamilton (Calgary), and Reilly Smith (Florida) were all traded. Boston then promptly lost three straight in regulation to start the new season, leaving coach Claude Julien to field questions about his job security before mid-October.

All the while, Chara remained calm. 

“I didn’t think that was time for panic,” he says. “It wasn’t the start we wanted to have, but we got back on track, winning six in a row. With new teammates and maybe a little bit of adjustments in the system, everybody needs to find their own way a little bit, so it doesn’t happen overnight and that’s when you can’t panic. You can’t start to exaggerate, because then it can start to get even worse. Sometimes you’ve got to get calm. Sometimes you step back and things will get sorted out.”

So continued a lengthy conversation on Thursday afternoon, following a sun-drenched practice at Gillette Stadium, the home of the New England Patriots, where Chara recalled to reporters his sighting of “Mr. Belichick.” He had returned to the locker room and was sitting at his stall, sipping some kind of pink drink for recovery. On the eve of his 700th career game with the Bruins and 1230th overall, ninth among active players, the six-time Norris Trophy finalist and three-time first-team NHL All-Star talked about the experiences, methods, and influences of his captaincy. 

The following words are his, unedited.

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“The first time ever I was a captain was when I played junior B back in Trencin, Slovakia. That was the first time those responsibilities of being a captain and leading a team started to sink in. Growing up, as far as I remember, I was always a loner. I never had too many friends or being part of a big group of teams or people and I think early in that age, the accountability of being responsible for your decisions and being a leader in your own way started to develop. When I became more … I shouldn’t say successful … but playing on teams and started getting better, I started to be myself. 

“I never tried to copy anybody or tried to be somebody I’m not. I always tried to be natural and those things started to come out. I became pretty early, at age 21 or 22, captain of the national team, my second world championships. I was an assistant captain for the Islanders my third year of pro (2000-01). After my first year with Ottawa I became assistant captain to Daniel Alfredsson.

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“When I signed to Boston, we didn’t have a captain because Joe Thornton was traded. After the training camp, the team announced that I’d be the captain. Obviously it was a huge honor. It was something that I was very proud of, but I knew where the team was at that time. There was a lot of work to be done and a lot of things needed to be changed, so I  obviously had my hands full. It wasn’t easy, but at the same time I felt I had enough support from my teammates to get where this team was during the successful years, and eventually it did happen in 2011.”

That spring, the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, making Chara only the second European-born captain to lift the grail. For his day with the Cup, he brought it back to Trencin, where he grew up. At a town-wide celebration, he fired a T-shirt gun and participated in an arm-wrestling competition. He lost. 

The son of an Olympic wrestler in then-Czechoslovakia, Chara worked out furiously and had obvious talent but still struggled to earn respect from hockey coaches.

“When I was cut by teams, junior teams, you’re going from the team you want to be part of to a different team. So I was a new guy. You don’t blend in right away and you don’t have as many friends. At one point I was traveling to other towns to play hockey and train, about 20 miles. I didn’t have time to hang out with other guys, because I had to jump on a train and once I got off the train I had to walk or take a bus home. All of that limits the time you can spend with your teammates.

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“I didn’t mind it. I’m not a guy who really complains about it. I don’t mind to be alone. I prefer to be with guys, we go out, we hang out, we do dinners and lunches and stuff like that. But at the same time, if I’m by myself, that’s fine too. A lot of times, you didn’t have time to shower after practice. That was the last train that was going back home and if I didn’t make it, I was in trouble. A lot of times, I would literally get off the ice, get the gear off, put the clothes on and I had to run. I had to make it to the train station to the train. A lot of hassle. A lot of hassle.

“Then at age 18, again, because all the cuts for whatever reasons, the coaches didn’t believe in me and they thought I should quit playing hockey, I left Slovakia and I went to play in the Czech Republic for Sparta Praha. At age 18, 19, I was living on my own. So again I was alone. In those years, you get used to it. You have to take a lot of responsibilities and you have to grow up really fast.”

Never was this more true than during the months after Chara signed with the Bruins in 2006. Among the first acts by Chiarelli, who had been Ottawa’s assistant GM while Chara was there, was naming Chara captain.

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“Nobody knows if what they say and what they do and how they mean it will be exactly the right thing. But you learn and you go with it. But I think the biggest thing is, you can’t be afraid to make a decision. You’ve got to take the full responsibility and you’ve got to be accountable for it. That doesn’t necessarily always mean you take the easy path. A lot of times you’re the guy who leads when times are tough and you’re the one to face the music. There were tough games when you have to step up, when you have to, for example, drop the gloves with the toughest guys on the other side. You have to show the team that you’re not shying away from some dirty areas and that’s how you do it.

“I just go by gut feeling. If I feel the team needs to have some break and get away from everything, maybe dinner and go out and have a few laughs, some fun, then that’ll be it. But if the team needs to have meetings and talk about it and address it, that’s also an option. If I need to address it one-on-one with players, that’s never been an issue. Certain situations call for different approaches. You can’t have same approach on every player or every situation.

“Again, you’ve got to go by gut feeling.There’s no simple explanation like, OK, this is it. Sometimes, for example, you look at that water bottle.

He pointed to a water bottle across the room.

“You see it’s half empty or it’s half full. Things like that. You’ve got to think about things, that if you do this, you can’t just think about step one. You’ve got to already be thinking about steps two, three, four, five.

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“I’m very honored and very proud to be a captain, especially for an Original Six franchise. But over the years I’ve had great support from different players. Mark Recchi was here, experienced guy, Patrice (Bergeron) stepping up, taking on a bigger role as a leader, Chris Kelly is great, David (Krejci) has obviously been a few years now as assistant captain. Over the years you rely on your teammates. You can’t just do it on your own. You always need that support and feedback. I always felt that making decisions, it’s always to do it better as a core group. When you hear different opinions, someone might have different ideas. I like to do it that way, take guys together, then maybe two, three, four guys sit down and talk about things and make decisions.”

Over the years, Chara has found inspiration from various texts. He cited Wearing the C a book featuring quotes of advice from past NHL captains, and another written by Miami Heat executive/former NBA coach Pat Riley.

“Yeah, and you know it doesn’t necessarily mean you have to look for leadership books. There’s books of survivors or true stories of things, Everest expeditions, where people rely on leaders or rely on being together as a team. It can be different stories, and you find leadership roles in those books.

And if Chara draws anything from outside sources, he relays the message in his own way. “He’s not looking at a book and stealing quotes,” Kelly says. “It’s thought up. It’s coming from the heart.”

“As a leader, I demand that we all share responsibility and we are all accountable and most of all that we all respect each other and we are good teammates to each other, and if I feel that if somebody or something is not following that lead, then yeah, I’m going to be probably more noticeable.”

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