BOSTON — Zdeno Chara is a communicator, whether in English or the umpteen other languages he knows. Watch the Bruins captain during games. He is always gathering teammates for pre-faceoff huddles. Offering words of advice at television timeouts. Sidling next to defensive partner Charlie McAvoy on the bench, triple-checking that they’re on the same page. “A telltale sign of [someone] that’s in touch with all the guys,” winger David Backes says.
It is also telling that every blueliner in the Boston locker room seems to remember the first time that Chara pulled them aside for a personal chat. Defenseman Brandon Carlo recalls sitting together at lunch two seasons ago, discussing “life, hockey, everything in between.” Steven Kampfer reaches back even further; Chara offered lots of advice while they skated together at training camp in ‘09. Connor Clifton, meanwhile, cites a practice before the start of these playoffs, when Chara “gave me a little kick in the behind” and reminded the rookie to stay focused. “That’s his way of helping guys,” Clifton says. “If he says something like that, listen.”
Even the forwards have stories. On March 1, 2016, Chara flagged down Noel Acciari before the fourth-liner made his Bruins debut. “Are you nervous?” Chara asked. Acciari nodded. “That’s good,” Chara replied. “I’m still nervous. You’ll be nervous for every game until you're done.”
No, the end is not near for the 42-year-old Chara. Next season his tireless Hall-of-Fame career will stretch into its fourth decade, given that he has already re-signed with Boston. Before then, though, comes another night of peak nerves. On Wednesday, Chara will set an NHL record by appearing in his 14th Game 7, the backbone and baritone behind the Bruins’ pursuit of their second Stanley Cup since 2011. (Which, naturally, was captured against Vancouver in seven.)
The bulk of the same core is leading the current fight against St. Louis, between top-six centers Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, and playoff leading scorer Brad Marchand. It is an egalitarian locker room, leadership responsibilities spread around the stalls at TD Garden. But it is also Z who wears the C. No doubt his voice will be heard before the puck drops. “He’s very good at knowing when stuff needs to be said,” Kampfer says. “That’s the kind of leader that he is.”
The irony, of course, is that Chara cannot speak much these days at all. It is one of several side effects from the reported broken jaw that he suffered when a puck ramped off his stick in Game 4. “He had a tough adjustment to make,” coach Bruce Cassidy says. “He's in a lot of pain. He's playing with a face shield that probably limits some of his vision.” And yet Chara finished second behind McAvoy in Game 6 ice time (22:15), helping lock down the Blues’ top line—over seven-plus minutes at even strength against center Brayden Schenn, Chara and the Bruins were +5 in shot differential—and scoring an empty-netter in the 5-1, season-salvaging victory.
“After that, what he went through, he doesn’t need to say anything really,” center Charlie Coyle says. “It’s already known. It’s just [us] wanting to run through a wall for him.” Carlo echoes a similar theme, pointing to the immediate aftermath of Chara’s injury. Still bloodied, he rejoined the Bruins in the third period and pulled door duty for the rest of Game 4, offering silent support. “Wanted to be there to support us, even though he can’t talk to us,” Carlo says. “He was there to give us some knuckles, or a tap on the shinpads. That speaks a lot to his character.”
“Well, he still talks,” Kampfer says. “You’ve just got to pay attention a little more, because he can’t open his mouth.”
Whereas Boston is filled with seasoned playoff veterans, only Blues winger David Perron had ever appeared in a Stanley Cup final prior to last month. But St. Louis has been swatting away pressure since goalie Jordan Binnington arrived in early January and the team began charging up the standings. Backed by Binnington—who, as you might have heard, does not look nervous—the Blues are 9-3 on the road these playoffs and undefeated (5-0) after a loss.
Not that the Bruins have coasted through entirely calm waters. They overcame a 3-2 deficit in the opening round to eliminate Toronto. Weathered a physical series against the Blue Jackets. Spoiled St. Louis’ party plans on Sunday night, becoming only the sixth team ever to force a Game 7 on the road. The victory was already secure when a puck was flung from 145 feet and wobbled into an open net, but a wild celebration broke out nonetheless on the Bruins bench. In NHL history, no defenseman older than Chara had ever scored a goal in the Cup final.
Two days later, Chara was parked behind a microphone after practice in Boston, looking much more comfortable than his last media appearance prior to Game 5. He relayed the disappointment of Boston’s six-game loss to Chicago in the 2013 final: “Definitely makes you more hungry the next time.” He smiled softly when asked about his earliest Cup memories as a child and described the thrill of seeing “the big huge trophy” after Pittsburgh beat Minnesota in ‘91, though pronouncing the name “Jiří Hrdina” seemed somewhat difficult given his stiff jaw.
At one point, a reporter referenced a fiery address that Bergeron apparently delivered before Game 6, reminding teammates to savor the moment. With the Stanley Cup at stake, did Chara have any plans for something similar? “I think we share our responsibility,” Chara replied. “It’s a great group of leaders we have. Not that I’m going to be sitting at a desk, trying to figure out some speech. I think you just have to go by feel. It’s more about actions than words.”